There are risks associated with everything we do. Children are killed playing sports and adults are killed pursuing activities in their leisure time. The risk that we are willing to accept in any activity depends on a cost/benefit analysis. Often, feelings cloud our judgement.
A recent power failure got me thinking about our reliance on energy in cooking, cleaning, preserving foods, controlling our environment, making products, transportation, entertainment, information technology, etc. Almost every activity depends on the consumption of energy. The benefits of energy are clear, so what are the costs? Death, for one.
Workers being killed in dangerous energy production facilities as well as deaths in the general population from the byproducts of energy production must all be taken into account in determining the risks. It is estimated that energy production costs nearly one and a half million lives per year. Fossil fuels, especially coal, are the biggest offenders. However, these numbers may be large due to the fact that fossil fuels are responsible for a major fraction of energy production.
A more equitable way of to compare mortality rates associated with energy production is to divide the death rate by the amount of energy produced by that energy source. The column labelled FATAL/TWH (or fatalities per terawatt of energy production) shows this ratio.
Coal – world avg.
(26% world energy, 50% of elec.)
Coal – China
Utilizing heavily-manual practices
Coal – USA
Mostly open-pit & u/g machine
(36% of world energy)
(21% of world energy)
(less than 0.1% of world energy)
(less than 1% of world energy)
(EU deaths, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro + Banqiao
(171,000 Banqiao dead)
(5.9% of world energy)
To be evenhanded, the death rates must include all possible causes. For example, the wind power and rooftop solar statistics include deaths of installers falling from tall ladders. The nuclear numbers include deaths due to exposure to nuclear waste as well as direct radiation exposure of residents near plants.
Until researching this topic, I was unaware of the Banqiao dam in China that failed in the mid 1970s -- resulting in an estimated 171,000 fatalities. This dam and the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl share two important similarities: They were built with the help of engineers from the former Soviet Union; and, their failures were catastrophic in their devastating effect on the environment. However, the nuclear disaster cost far fewer lives, and the deaths were spread out over decades, leading to perhaps 100 deaths per year. For a description of the technical details of nuclear meltdown, see the lecture by Richard A. Muller. Muller's book, Physics for Future Presidents, addresses the issue of nuclear waste - a must read for anyone who wants to develop an informed opinion on the topic.
According to the numbers, hydroelectric power generation is far more dangerous than the use of nuclear reactors. Some people might argue that this hydroelectric disaster should not count because it was a singular event. Using similar arguments, why not remove the Fukashima and Chernobyl accidents as well? Removing inconvenient data is bad science but makes for good politics and feeds ideology.
From the perspective of the individual, the effect of various health risks on life expectancy has a more visceral effect. The table below shows estimates that I gathered from the internet as well as rough numbers that I calculated for Fukushima. Alcohol consumption is comparable to the risks of being exposed to what is considered a huge dose of radioactivity, while obesity and smoking carry even higher risks.
Life expectancy lost
Smoking 20 cigs a day
Alcohol (US Ave)
All Natural Hazards
300 mrem/yr – in addition to background
1,000 mrem/yr – in addition to background
Person standing at main gate of Fukushima power plant for 1 month after peak emissions
At 6,000 mrem peak at Fukushima
An inhaled particle of smoke that increases the likelihood of death by the same amount as a nucleus of strontium should be equally feared. I would greatly prefer to work at a nuclear power plant than a coal mine and would prefer to live a few miles away from a nuclear plant than an oil refinery.
So, before eating those sugary snacks, consider a tour of your local nuclear reactor. Your life expectancy will be greater as a result.