Friday, March 25, 2011

Nuke me

The coverage of the Japan tsunami disaster here in Canada has begun to really irritate me.  Specifically the problem is that the news insists on focusing on the 'nuclear disaster' in Japan when they really should be reporting the 'vindication of the safety of nuclear energy' in Japan instead.  I also found out that Canada is restricting imports of food from Japan unless that food comes certified as being free of radioactive contamination.  Do the people who make these edicts have any idea whatsoever about what they are talking about?  To hear the news you would think that a significant chunk of Japan is a glassy nuclear wasteland with twitching, mutated survivors wandering around looking for brains to eat.  Instead the real picture is that a nuclear plant had some significant problems due to a catastrophe far beyond its design parameters and as a consequence a few people got extremely minor and non life threatening doses of radiation.  The radiation pumped out of the plant into the surrounding area is insignificant and the idea that crops from that area are contaminated is to completely ignore the facts.

Let us note:  EVERYONE is exposed to radiation every single day.  The increased radiation suffered by people at the plant so far is comparable to the increased radiation people are exposed to by living in cities at higher elevations.  The plant in question was 40 years old and designed to withstand earthquakes of one fifth of the strength of the one that occurred and yet the current sum of the consequences of the mess is structural damage and relatively inconsequential health damage.  To be sure, the health damage to the handful of people involved is probably a real source for concern for them but the total damage to human health is less than a *single* car crash.  If a car crashed in Malaysia and several people were injured or killed we would not be talking about banning cars in Canada or preparing for a car-less future because of it - let us take the same stance with nuclear power.  Obviously it is critical to take very significant precautions when dealing with something as potentially dangerous as nuclear power but the lesson we should take away from Fukushima is that we have and can manage that risk to our benefit.

A good way to look at the dangers of various sources of energy is to consider how many deaths there are for each Terawatt hour (TWh) of electricity they provide.  This link has a bunch of details, but here are the highlights for those curious:

Energy Source              Death Rate (deaths per TWh)

Coal – world average               161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China                       278
Coal – USA                         15
Oil                                36  (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas                         4  (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass                    12
Peat                               12
Solar (rooftop)                     0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind                                0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro                               0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro - world including Banqiao)    1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear                             0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

That's right, nuclear is safer than anything.  Of course, this is based off of a history of pretty extreme safety levels, barring Chernobyl, and if a giant reactor were to blow up in the worst possible fashion it could kill an awful lot of people.  However, we should always keep in mind that the WHO estimates that 1 million people a year die from the particulates in the atmosphere introduced by coal power.  If nuclear was comparably dangerous then it would be killing approximately 100,000 people a year.  For nuclear to be worse than coal over the past 25 years a nuclear accident would have to kill 2.5 million people.  That is absolutely beyond belief; even Chernobyl only killed 30 people directly.  There are varying reports as to the eventual death toll of course.  The nuclear industry likes to report the 30 direct deaths, Greenpeace estimates 270,000 deaths from its own internal report and actual governing bodies all seem to agree on something like 4000.  I am inclined to believe the UN and the WHO over Greenpeace or the nuclear industry since of those 3 groups only one doesn't have a vested interest in exaggeration and hyperbole one way or the other.

The bottom line is that people can die from all kinds of things.  Falling out of bed kills more people per year than nuclear power does by a huge margin, not to mention car crashes, alcohol poisoning, or nearly any other source of deaths you can name.  We should respect the potential danger of nuclear power and take appropriate precautions.  Fear is not a rational response here; the key word is respect.

1 comment:

  1. So glad that you wrote this. I'm getting tired of seeing the news report on "nuclear crisis in Japan!" and yelling "what's the death toll again?... oh right... zero!" at the screen.

    Interesting that "Nuclear crisis" and not "Earthquake crisis" are the dominant headlines. Only one of those killed thousands.