Deaths per unit of electricity generated

In the comments to Romm Echoes Groundless Cell Phone/Cancer Fears? we've degenerated into an argument about the safety of nuclear versus solar power ("which do you think has killed more people: radiation from Fukushima, or solar-voltaic installers falling from ladders?" was my question. It is a trick question, of course, because no-one has died from Fukushima as far as I know. But the correct question, of course, is deaths per unit of 'lectric generated). MV, beng something of a spoilsport (just joking, don't worry) pops the bubble by pointing to someone who has actually worked some numbers out. so I'm going to steal them.

First a warning: I haven't verified these numbers. They fit my prejudices, so I'm going with them for the moment. But if you feel like attacking them for obvious flaws, please do.

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 inc Banqiao)   1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead) Nuclear 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)


[Credit: Brian Wang at NextBigFuture]

So by those numbers, nuclear is our safest power source. Solar and wind and hydro are also pretty safe, oil is dangerous, but everything else is completely dwarfed by coal. Coal is also by far the major emitter of radiation {{cn}}.


* Evidence Meltdown - Monbiot, April.

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Well, the really obvious flaw is that coal mining deaths tend to be clearly visible and easily attributable (mainly being caused by cave-ins) whereas deaths related to the uranium fuel cycle tend not to be, as they mostly result from long-term environmental factors. We actually have no fucking idea how many deaths the uranium fuel cycle really causes, because you could only identify them through population-level statistics (and even then there are substantial difficulties), and those statistics are lousy to non-existent in the places where you would mostly expect such things to occur (e.g. the illegal dumping of radioactive waste in Somalia). Might be lots, might be practically none, we don't know and we're mostly not that interested in finding out, in case the answer isn't what we wanted it to be.

Given how few TWh we generate with rooftop solar, this is asserting that basically no deaths have ever been associated with it. Seems unlikely to me.
Dunc: the coal number is almost entirely premature deaths from air pollution. Not mining deaths at all.

By Nick Barnes (not verified) on 03 Jun 2011 #permalink

Coal emits more radioactivity to the air, but it is radioactivity that already exists. Nuclear power generates additional radioactivity, above and beyond what is naturally occurring but is better at controlling the airborne aspect.

[Aiiiie, wrong: the existing radioactivity was safely buried in the ground and thus no harm to anyone. coal is responsible for the increased risk from dispersing the radioactivity -W]

My guess is the nuclear power death rate mostly consists of non-radiation related deaths. Probably mostly construction falls, electrocution, etc.

1) A man volunteers to fight in a war, and accidentally kills himself and two buddies--also volunteers--with a grenade.

2)A man volunteers to fight in a war, and accidentally kills himself and two civilians -- say, a mother and child -- with a grenade.

Are these equal in your view? Not in mine. Which is why the issue of consent mucks up a simplistic deaths-versus-deaths argument.

No argument from me that coal is the worst though.

Douglas: almost all these lives are 'civilians': premature deaths due to air pollution.

By Nick Barnes (not verified) on 03 Jun 2011 #permalink

Nick, not for solar panels, which was the original comparison.

Given the risks of construction of tall think things (wind) and silane (solar), those numbers look a bit small. The coal numbers show what mine safety and unions can do for you. Be that the German coal numbers are probably even lower although the brown coal has a lot less energy content.

As to Romm, get off it. He said something that was well within the Overton window, that there may be a risk, and since avoiding the risk costs less than zilch, he was going to do so, what you do is your business.

The annoying thing about you and James is you appear to operate on the principle of no friends to the greener side and as a consequence you help to insure that none are left standing.

You know: When they came for Al Gore, I found a couple of things I didn't like about his movie. Not that they were wrong, but that they maybe left some detail out.

When they came for Joe Romm, I thought he was shrill.

When they came for me, there was no one left to help me

That sort of thing.

[I don't think what Romm said was reasonable. Nor, really, do I think the general over-the-top approach of Romm to GW is good, either. As I've said before. I'm happy with what you write, though, so by the "no friends to the greener side" does that make you less green than me? As for Gore: well, I wrote about AIT too -W]

This table doesn't include deaths/TWh for the nuclear fuel chain (although that is shown later in the article), which would be about 0.6.

[Where are you reading that from? I don't see it -W]

I did take a look at the numbers here:… I was appalled at how many people were taking back-of-the-envelope calculations and treating them as a trump card right after Fukushima fracked itself. Thank you, by the way, for explicitly noting you weren't doing that.

There are some big problems in the numbers. The biggest is that the air pollution numbers used are for all deaths related to outdoor air pollution (not what I'd originally thought was the problem with this number, but explained by the author in the comments on my post). We don't know what part coal plays in the overall picture, but it's a small fraction of the total.

There's also the issue that a great deal of uranium mining happens in locations where we just don't track the consequences. We don't know what that death count is.

But the big unknown in these numbers is time. Nuclear power plants are relatively new things. Many of them are reaching their end of life but not being decomissioned. Lifetime risk and fatigue calculations are now outdated. Assuming that these nuclear power numbers are stable isn't founded in data.

W - regarding #3 -

I wasn't "Aiii, wrong".

What I said was 100% correct.

You have chosen to add more beyond what I wrote, which I assumed readers already knew, based on your blog's last sentence - that coal emits more radioactivity.

Now, I will point out where you are wrong, aiii! :)

The radioactivity associated with coal was not "safely buried in the ground and thus no harm to anyone". Safe is a relative term. There is still a health risk from radon gas and its daughters eminating from the ground and being inhaled. And much of the radioactivity from coal remains in the fly ash, which is returned to the ground.

If you don't know what a health physicist does, you may want to look it up.

[The amount of radiation from the radon coming up is trivial in comparison with that distributed by burning the coal. I think your original was misleading, which is why I reacted as I did -W]

One cite? How about two?

Coal Ash Is More Radioactive than Nuclear Waste: Scientific American…

Coal ash is NOT more radioactive than nuclear waste | CEJournal

[Err, you're missing the point. No-one is claiming that coal ash is more radioactive than nuclear waste (this would be either meaningless or trivially wrong, because there are so many grades of nuclear waste; if you include the highest-grade; it is trivially wrong).

What I'm saying, and what is common-ground I think, is that the total amount of radiation exposure from coal burning far exceeds that from nuclear waste -W]

In a hurry so the English will be inconsistent and no time to fetch the sources: Well, Chernobyl actually released more radioactivity than yearly European coal emissions multiplied by a hundred.

Now with Fukushima again the game could have changed somewhat - has it already released more than all Japanese coal plants have produced say in the last 40 years?

Dunno about for example Soviet waste processing facilities.

I think coal is bad, also bad nukes are bad. We need improvements, not bans. Also human culture is bad at times.

Ordinary nuclear in the west, not that much releases.

> total amount of radiation exposure from coal burning

No argument from me on that.

TENORM: "Technologically Enhanced" Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material --- it's a separate category in the regulations. Coal ash, drilling waste, sewage sludge, etc.

TENORM has exceptions carved out in the regulations since it was first noticed in the 1980s as a problem

Leaking much smaller amounts is forbidden to the nuclear industries -- they can't be allowed to be as sloppy as the fossil fuel industries have been all along.

The problem biologists originally worried about -- longterm bioaccumulation of alpha and beta emitters internally -- isn't dealt with by the "nobody died" arguments. Fifty years ago nobody knew how to estimate the longterm risks.

The electron microscope was invented in the 1930s.
DNA was photographed in 1952.

Want to know for sure whether an increase in low level alpha and beta internal exposure makes any difference in the health in large populations over decades? Wait and see. It's a very small signal that takes a long time to detect.

For a biologist, that's still a real concern; slight changes in fitness determine what happens over generations. The survivors won't care, though. That's evolution in action.

Confusion is added by the people who argue that because some places have fairly high natural background gamma levels, "hormesis" must occur and so "radiation" is good for you -- ignoring the difference between exterior gamma and interior alpha and beta, and claiming they know what statistics can't show.

Any effect at very low levels is undetectable -- but that's not an argument for polluting until a problem _is_ statistically detectable.

It is a trick question, of course, because no-one has died from Fukashima as far as I know.

It's kind of a silly question, too ... if I'd started smoking cigarettes the day that Fukashima Fuk'd itself up, it's highly unlikely that I'd have died of lung cancer as of today, too.

There's a huge problem of attribution of early deaths due to events like Chernobyl.

We don't know how many early deaths will eventually be attributed to Fukashima but I doubt it will be zero. However, the Japanese have fairly aggressively evacuated nearby areas and perhaps it will be zero or near zero, so the damage will be more in terms of disruption of the lives of those affected and economic.

Enlightening, Stephanie Z #11, thanks

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 03 Jun 2011 #permalink

Are the statistics related to drop dead immediately types of dying? Various bad things seem not to be considered in the statistics given, especially long term ones. For example:
@1 Coal leads to deaths later, from black lung as well as possibly toxins or radiation.
@8 in addition to the hazards of working with "tall things" wind energy has manufacturing hazards, such as exposures to polymer resins. Same for any other energy source involving manufacturing, such as solar.

I agree about the problems with the statistical analysis of deaths from various exposures, in various comments above.

That is one of the saving graces of a career in chemistry, for example. There is a finite probability that something I was exposed to will ultimately kill me, but chances are way greater that, by then, I'll already be dead from some much more mundane and ordinary cause.

@Stephanie Z #11
You selectively worry about uranium mining having problems, but the reality is that this incomplete knowledge applies to other technologies just as strongly. And certainly for much of the time in the last decade, most uranium was sourced in Australia and Canada. I am all for strong regulation of mining, but uranium mining is only a tiny portion of that.

And I would like you to explain how you see decommissioning as posing hazards that would significantly alter the picture we have, as well as letting us all know (say) three examples of reactors that have been shut but are not being decommissioned.

@Martin #4, I don't think the WHO's 4000 eventual cancers have been shown to be "incomplete" in the sense you mean. In fact the position of UNSCEAR has modified to reduce that number, if anything, since they no longer regard low-dose extrapolation as meaningful - p24/179 has sections "Scientific limitations" and "UNSCEAR statement" on Late Health Effects.

97. The currently available epidemiological data do not provide any basis for assuming radiogenic morbidity and mortality with reasonable certainty in cohorts of the residents of the areas of the three republics and other countries in Europe who received total average doses of below 30mSv over 20 years

Joffan, I am aware of that phrasing (and the text around it, 93-98) but I read it very differently: basically they just give up on estimating these far-out low-dose effects. They are not saying they don't exist, just that they know of no satisfactory way to estimate them. As I sometimes put it flippantly, they "refuse to count bodies without tags on their toes".

Scientifically they are no doubt correct: there is no real good (or any) epidemiological handle on this. In their role as policy-relevant experts though I see this as a dereliction of duty, and when first reading it was vividly reminded of IPCC AR4 similarly passing the buck on the non-linear ice dynamics contribution to sea level rise.

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 04 Jun 2011 #permalink

...and Joffan, in support of my reading, UNSCEAR's #98:

It should be stressed that the approach outlined in no way contradicts the application of the LNT model for the purposes of radiation protection, where a cautious approach is conventionally and consciously applied [...]

Which is sort of the whole point of this discussion :-)

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 04 Jun 2011 #permalink

Joffan, both Google or Wikipedia have answers to these questions that you repeat over and over on many blogs.
If you'd just read the responses, you wouldn't need to keep repeating the questions over and over.

Try pasting your own question into a search box and you'll find the answers readily available.

E.g., you ask that someone give you: "... (say) three examples of reactors that have been shut but are not being decommissioned."

Google really wants to befriend you if you'd just ask.

"... the Russian Federation has shutdown but has not decommissioned over 120 nuclear and radiation hazardous facilities, including:

4 nuclear power units;
10 production uranium-graphite reactors;
18 research reactors .....
Urgent solutions are needed for 20 open-air storage reservoirs .... (2008)

Deaths due to uranium mining:…

How about 600 cases of cancer in a town of 2000?…

[The numbers sound high, but a uranium-processing mill operated through World War II until 1960. I presume the coal deaths we're counting don't include the many fatalities from the much worse conditions of that era -W]

By Holly Stick (not verified) on 04 Jun 2011 #permalink

> related to this discussion

Jaydee, if you had actually followed this discussion (and actually read the Monbiot articles you link to), you would not have made that claim.

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 05 Jun 2011 #permalink

People are still developing cancer 50 years after it closed. How long will that site continue to cause cancer? Centuries? How many children will die of leukemia?

How can you compare deaths in coal minig accidents with deaths from black lung developed over decades? It doesn't make much sense to compare deaths by instant accidents with deaths caused by long-term effects of working in a toxic atmossphere, especially when the corporate tendency is to deny that the industry is causing any long-term deaths.

One list of numbers doesn't really mean much. Are some of the coal deaths caused by the laziness and greed of specific corporations, and could the death rate be substantially lessened by beter regulation and safety standards?

The Fukushima plant was clearly not as carefully regulated as most people assumed, since no one had ensured the backups would work. We may not know know if the radiation is killing workers for decades. I did hear recently that one worker had died suddenly, but maybe it was from a heart atack or something. Was that related to the conditions at the plant? Maybe, in which case it should be counted as a nuclear death, right?

By Holly Stick (not verified) on 05 Jun 2011 #permalink

I did hear recently that one worker had died suddenly, but maybe it was from a heart atack or something. Was that related to the conditions at the plant? Maybe, in which case it should be counted as a nuclear death, right?

He was a poor, old, manual labourer - recruited to clear rubble from the plant in full RadHaz gear. Whether you'd want to call that a death from nuclear power generation or the lax Japanese labour environment is up to you. I'd go for the latters.

More about the Skilled Veterans Corps:

"I am 72 and on average I probably have 13 to 15 years left to live," he says.

"Even if I were exposed to radiation, cancer could take 20 or 30 years or longer to develop. Therefore us older ones have less chance of getting cancer."

Which agains shows that long term effects can't be compared to short term ones, because people exposed to cancer-causing toxins may die of something else before the cancer has a chance to manifest itself.

By Holly Stick (not verified) on 06 Jun 2011 #permalink

@Holly Stick
We may not know know if the radiation is killing workers for decades.

We will probably never know because the sample size is likely to be too small and there is no current way of attributing an individual cancer to radiation dose.

But we can arrive at some sort of estimate of the risk they face due to radiation exposure.

For example, a very crude back of envelope estimate:

Roughly the risk of developing a fatal cancer is something like 5% per 1 Sv dose. Suppose 500 workers receive a 150 mSv average dose. Then the number of excess cancers expected is 3.75. And for an individual, the risk is something like 1%.

I don't pretend that there is anything "accurate" about this, but it is probably of the right order of magnitude. Factors such as age are important and even the concept of "collective dose" is a bit suspect.

I recall seeing Dr Robert Gale interviewed and when asked if plant workers were likely to develop cancer, the answer was no.

The lifetime risk of dying from cancer of all causes is about 20%. I have a bit of a problem with people who, for their own reasons, seek to overstate the risk to Fukushima plant workers. They should have the right to get on with their lives not burdened by excessive fear and anxiety quite disproportional to the actual risks they face. What is owed to them is the best and most accurate possible assessment of any risk they face.

Eamon, Idon't know about a lax labour environment; perhaps he was one of the seniors who are offering to work there because they are less vulnerable to radiation than younger people

Holly, he was a day labourer - it was reported in the news*. What many Japanese businesses do is subcontract out work to other companies and recruitment agencies. There's been a fair bit of this reported in the Japanese Press* with regard to the Fukushima Dai-Ichi clean-up. One chap applied for a job driving a lorry in Miyagi Prefecture - a prefecture north of Fukushima, and found himself driving said lorry around the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant for pretty shitty wages.

* I live in Japan.

Quokka that is about the kind of assessment that I would have made. While the increase in cancer risk is probably real enough, there is no hope of detecting it statistically. And for every individual it is small compared to the pre-existing background risk, so panicking or allowing it to dominate your life is very wrong-headed, human as it may be.

BTW this seems to be the background why the WHO report on Chernobyl attempted to downplay the remote low-dose effects: in the affected areas, there is indeed widespread depression and fatalism and folks blaming C for every ailment, this is described in the report. Remember the WHO are doctors and will place the interests of their "patients" first, in this case by trying to "kick them out of it". While understandable, they are thus failing their duty to a larger community. There is never an excuse for not telling the whole truth as well (or as poorly) as you know it.

By Martin Vermeer (not verified) on 07 Jun 2011 #permalink