Sunday, March 13, 2011

Nuclear Power in Perspective

There is no question that the events in Japan are ongoing and serious. That said, I believe a lot of people are being misled by much of the news coverage.  Take a look at these headlines from the Christian Science Monitor and from Channel News Asia, respectively,


and,
"Three Mile Island" and "Chernobyl" sounds scary, right?

Let me ask a couple of questions?  How many were killed by the Three Mile Island incident?

100?

10,000?

100,000?

Answer? None.  None of the plant workers were killed and no one in the surrounding area.

But, Chernobyl? We all saw the photos of the burning nuclear plant and the open reactor and the workers in radiation suits. "Experts" predicted numerous cancer deaths from "fallout." Lots of people were killed in that, right? OK, let me ask again, how many do you think?

100?

10,000?

100,000?

The answer, after 20 years, (i.e., time for cancers to develop) the total number of people killed is 56. To put that twenty-year death toll in perspective, it was less than half of the number of people killed by tornadoes in the United States in 2008.

The situation in Japan still has to play out. We don't know what the casualty numbers might be. But, please keep in mind that if it is "as bad as Three Mile Island" that is pretty good result. Take the ongoing news coverage with a huge grain of salt.

I do believe we should not build additional "old style" nuclear plants but new nuclear technology (i.e., thorium reactors) are extremely promising: Safer, less expensive, little or nothing that would be a problem in the hands of bad guys.

UPDATE: Reader Jim Johnson pointed out the recent tragic deaths associated with natural gas. Five killed in a pipeline explosion in Allentown, PA (not far from Three Mile Island) last month and eight killed six months ago in San Bruno, CA.

There is no source of energy that is without some risk. The challenge is to properly balance the risks.

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18 comments:

  1. Mike - According to the U.S. Department of Labor - Mining Safety and Health Administration, there have been 369 deaths related to coal mines in the U.S. since 2000. Of course, this doesn't include indirect adverse health effects associated with coal.

    As you noted, every large-scale power generation technology has risks. There was a massive explosion at a natural gas storage facility in Japan the day of the EQ (I'm sure you can find video), though I'm not sure if anyone died in that incident. When the Deepwater Horizon exploded, 11 people perished. If it weren't for the oil spewing uncontrollably into the GoM, that explosion may only have been a one- or two-night news story.

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  2. One thing I would add is this, these are old boiling water reactors (BWA), located on the ocean in an active earthquake zone. Even with the breakwaters that were in place they were severely exposed to these hazards. These reactors are near their end of life with rudimentary control systems compared to what is available today. Also, they are very dependent on backup power for all systems including safety. Given the logic from the people like Sen. Lieberman, we should have stopped all jet travel with the Comet crashes in the 1950's. Which by the way killed more people than Chernobyl.

    I grow tired of the pseudo-risk adversity of the world today. People smoke cigarettes while worrying about the chemicals in the water, air, food, etc.. They drive in a car a thousand miles greatly risking their lives and worry about radiation levels from a nuclear power plant and think nothing of the much greater radioactivity coming from a coal fired plant. Joe Lieberman walks through and spends significant time in the granite halls of Congress exposed to more radiation by several orders of magnitude than anyone experienced from 3 Mile Island. This is what we get for having poor science and technical understanding in society today.

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  3. You cannot possibly know that there were only 56 deaths from Chernobyl, that's absurd. That cloud drifted across northern Europe and even across here in England. We CANNOT know how many cancers (and subsequent deaths) were caused by it. Seriously, get real mate.

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  4. Your claim about the Chernobyl death count is a tracvesty. It caused a huge amount of cancer and fetus deformations, your 56 is an "official" figure which leaves out all of these.

    Only way to find out the true death count is comparing yearly deaths 5yoears prior to 10 years after the incident and correcting for known biases.

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  5. UNSCEAR says 4,000 deaths attributable to Chernobyl whereas Greenpeace says 100,000 (but they would, wouldn't they?)

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  6. I recently saw a documentation about Chernobyl, and there were given true numbers. Of the people, that made the clean up work and sacrophag construction - about 500.000 in total because they wanted to keep the exposition at "reasonable" amounts and often changed workers - about 200.000 are dead by now and the rest is disabled because of multiple health problems.

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  7. @O. Weinzierl/Anonymous: I am very interested in the source of the ~100K death claims from Chernobyl.

    Who came up with this and how?

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  8. http://www.chernobylreport.org/summary-en.pdf

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  9. Comparisons of death data miss the point, for a number of reasons - a well paid worker in a mining or gas installation (or nuclear) knows the risks and has professionals on hand to limit them; radioative emissions strike whole populations, including the unborn, sometimes in non-nuclear countries that have chosen not to take the risks - simple death stats do not address these differences.

    Secondly - the biggest impact of aerial releases is economic - irrespective of how many long term cancers may or may not be attributable (this depends on dose models and assumptions about thresholds and 4000-100,000 is not an unlikely spread, with the truth somewhere inbetween). The major impact however is with contaminated land and long-term evacuation to protect populations from ground radiation - In the case of Chernobyl, the winds took most of the radioactivity north over the vast and largely uninhabited Pripet marshes - now a major nature reserve because no one can live there. The same accident at a UK power plant near London or Bristol, for example, would require those cities to be evacuated. And it is a myth that a big release could not happen - early UK reactors do not have secondary containment - as at TMI - which saved the day for Pennsylvania - and that came with 90% of its deisgn limit when the hydrogen explosion occurred.

    it looks like the Japanese reactor now has no secondary containment (and it was not a secondary concrete pressure vessel as at TMI) but as in the UK, a simple corrugated iron building on a steel frame. It will take a massive and dangerous operation to prevent the fuel from melting and the pressures breaching the reactor pressure vessel - and if they do lose it, they will need evacuation of cities up to 100 km away.

    This was all foreseen by environmental lobby groups in the early 1980s - when I was involved in trying to persuade Japan not to go down the nuclear road. I love Japan and its people and it is painful to be proven right.

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  10. Peter Taylor, good grief. And how many people would have died over the years without heating and hot food in Japan's notoriously cold winters. Get over yourself. People die and they always will, but many more would die of cold or starvation than are likely to die as a result of a slightly leaky power station.

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  11. Interesting fact:
    There were 135,000 evacuees from the zone around Chernobyl who recieved an additional dose of 100 millirem above background radiation. This is less of an increase they would have had if they left the Ukraine for Colorado which has a much higher natural background radiation level.

    And that's the key, those who believe/estimate that Chernobyl caused 10's or 100's of thousand deaths tend to look at the Chernobyl radiation levels in isolation. They ignore the already high natural background radiation levels we recieve daily, and all Chenobyl did was to just add a little extra to that. There is no linear link between deaths caused by radiation and the general natural background levels of where you live so why would Chernobyl have a major effect.

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  12. Anonymous,you live in the uk but somehow managed to miss the excellent documentary,`What the greens got wrong`and the televised discussion afterwards?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uepnYHMlvO4

    Your silliness aside,the answer is thorium.....now what was the question?

    Banjo

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  13. Youtube video blocked in USA on copyright grounds. Very disappointed.

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  14. What about coal miner deaths? Those vastly exceed Nuclear related deaths.

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  15. Mike, You are wrong. It is estimated that about 400 people each year have been killed as a consequence of three mile island. These deaths have been caused by pollution from the coal fired generation that replaced the nuclear plant.

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  16. Anonymous gave as source:
    http://www.chernobylreport.org/summary-en.pdf
    a document by two people identified only by their initials.
    If he/she expects this to be taken as valid proof he/she needs to take a crash course in reality.
    For all we know he/she may have been one of the authors.
    I downloaded the document and apologise for the waste of bandwidth.

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  17. Dear Anonymous,

    While I appreciate that you appear to be a nuclear proponent, I'd be more impressed with your TMI contention if you gave the source for the 400 people/year.

    Mike

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  18. This new information makes future nuclear power practically free! There is no need for expensive facilities as we can just dump a reactor in any pool of water and just let the components rot after they are done with the fission.

    Imagine how much money has been wasted building billion dollar reactor facilities and waste tunnels for absolutely NOTHING!

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