Nuclear energy creates an uneasy feeling of danger for many people. Ancient and dangerous minerals are Concentrated to awaken seemingly unnatural powers Creating horribly toxic elements that if they escape can and have killed people in horrible ways.
how many people has nuclear energy killed and how?
Nuclear energy has been a thing since 1951and since then there have been around 30 reported accidents globally most of them were pretty minor compared to the two disasters everybody is familiar with Fukushima and Chernobyl. Chernobyl is undoubtedly the worst nuclear accident in history for a number of reasons. The reactor technology was old and ill-prepared for emergencies and the government response was slow and more concerned about image than damage control. Still, only 31 people died directly in the accident. But what makes Nuclear energy scary is not reactors blowing up but the radiation they release.
Total Death Toll?
So, the real question is how many deaths through cancer and other diseases will Chernobyl cause? Here things get really complicated because you dip right into controversy and just discussing the different estimates and how they were calculated is a topic of another day.
Chernobyl Long Term Deaths
The most pessimistic estimate comes from a study commissioned by the European Green Party and projects up to 60k premature deaths by the year 2065. Most Scientific studies come up with numbers much lower than this. The WHO has estimated that in total the long-term death toll will be around four thousand. While the UN Scientific Committee on the effects of atomic concluded that even this figure could be too high.
Fukushima Daiichi 2011
The second big nuclear accident was Fukushima Daiichi in 2011. Fukushima didn’t only operate with much better technology that was less dangerous in the first place much better security measures in place and the official response was fast and decisive and so the current death toll is only 573. The major difference here is that these deaths were not consequenced radiation they were indirect deaths from the stress of the evacuation of the areas around the reactors and occurred almost entirely in older populations estimates of the possible long-term deaths from radiation vary widely from none at all to about one thousand in terms of the other long term consequences an increase in thyroid cancer has been observed. But according to the WHO this is related to the increased screening rate. By 2018
There had been only one confirmed death among workers. As a result of radiation-induced lung cancer. Now lets’ compare this to renewable energy.
Global Primary Energy Consumption
Solar wind and Geothermal energy basically only cause deaths as a result of construction and maintenance accidents. Unfortunately, their current share of global energy is pretty low. The major player in renewable energy is Hydro Power. Which mostly means building dams and letting water flow through turbines from a higher elevation to a lower elevation.
Hydropower has been the most fatal of accidents with hundreds of thousands of deaths in the last half-century. One accident clearly stands out 1975 Bangko Hydroelectric dam failure in China which has a striking similarity to Chernobyl. Old technology, poor design, and poor management by authoritarian governments concerned about appearances. In a nutshell, a massive Typhoon triggered intense flooding that destroyed the dam and subsequently a number of smaller dams in a chain reaction unleashing a flood of over 15 billion cubic meters of water in total. Kilometer-wide waves as high as buildings devastated thousands of square kilometers of the countryside and countless communities.
Banqiao Flood Deaths
All in all the death toll from just this one accident and its direct consequences is estimated to lie between 85k to 240k. But all of these deaths caused by nuclear and renewable energy are actually negligible in comparison to the real killer energy source fossil fuel, the most widely used source of energy and electricity.
When we burn fossil fuels to heat up water makes the turbine spin or cause many explosion to move cars with internal combustion engines gases like ozone, SO2, CO and NO2 are released to the atmosphere. Breathing in these gases disrupts lung functions which aggravate asthma and bronchitis and cause a wide range of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. But even more dangerous is the fine particle pollution burning fossil fuels causes a mixture of solid and liquid droplets of poisonous substances as small as 2.5 microns in diameter. They easily find their way deep into your lungs and increase the risk of deadly diseases like lung cancer, stroke, and heart disease. Fossil fuel-related air pollution is the number one cause of environmental-related deaths in the world.
Air Pollution Caused Diseases
According to the WHO it accounts for 29 of all cases of lung cancer 17% of deaths from acute lower respiratory infection, 24% from stroke, 25% from ischemic heart disease, and 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. All in all outside air pollution adds up to the deaths of 4M people each year. What makes air pollution especially problematic and sinister is the fact that the damage it causes happens very gradually which makes it hard for our brains that didn’t evolve with subtle dangers in mind to realize the scope of the problem.
Deaths in the Last 50 years
Collectively air pollution from fossil fuels is estimated to have killed around 100M people in the past 50 years.
Global Primary Energy Consumption
But wait is that really fair fossil fuels also provide over 80 percent of global energy. So, that makes sense that they cause the most deaths. So let’s compare deaths per energy unit. Deaths per energy unit produced. A few studies have compared the death rates from different energy sources per 1 terawatt hour that is about the annual energy consumption of 27000 EU citizens or 12600 US citizens. To produce that much energy for one year, coal causes 25 deaths, oil causes 18, and natural gas 3. Renewable energy causes 1 death every few decades. And in the worst case, Nuclear Energy would cause 1 death every 14 years. One study even found that nuclear energy actually saved 2M lives between 1971 and 2009 by displacing fossil fuels from the global energy mix.
The numbers are clear, even when using wildly pessimistic numbers nuclear energy is among the safest forms of energy generation. And at a time when we’re struggling to slow down rapidly climate change, it’s a really valuable low carbon option. However, all these facts still leave one major argument that is fielded against nuclear power. Opponents of nuclear energy argue that nuclear waste and its lack of long-term storage solutions is an unacceptable problem and risk. While proponents of nuclear energy say that until renewable energies are able to cover the complete energy demand of mankind, it is arguably safer to store nuclear waste for the time being than to inhale poisonous gases and promote rapid climate change.
So, looking at the comparative death rates, it’s a bit concerning that some countries are replacing nuclear energy with fossil fuels, mostly coal. Especially Germany and Japan have been the most active in dismantling their nuclear fleet. in a ploy to appease the public the German Government shut down 11 of its 17 nuclear facilities and plans to close the remaining reactors in 2022. The immediate gap in energy production was filled by temporarily increasing coal production. The energy source with the largest health impacts and the worst consequences for climate change.
A 2019 analysis concluded that as a consequence, the nuclear phase-out has led to 1100 avoidable deaths per year in Germany due to the increase in years after 2010.
So, in conclusion, nuclear energy feels way more dangerous than it actually is. No matter how you look at it the one thing we should strive to get rid of as quickly as possible of fossil fuels to prevent the deaths they cause each year and to slow down climate change regardless of how much you personally care about climate change issues or which energy source you favor. Saving millions of lives should be something we can all agree on.