It is annoying that one of the things that everyone knows is that nuclear power is unsafe. This it simply isn’t true!
Here’s a graph from a new paper by James Hansen outlining how many lives nuclear power saves in the average year. In total nuclear power is estimated to have saved over 1.8 million lives relative to fossil fuel generation of the same Terrawattage.
How does that work? I’m so glad you asked.
There are two ideas it is important you keep in mind when thinking about this. All power generation is going to kill someone. All everything is going to kill something. Every action we take has consequences and some of those consequences involve people dying because that is what everyone does eventually anyway.
The second idea is substitution. If we do one thing we will do less of another, especially when those activities are similar. My advocacy for drug legalisation is in large part informed by my upbringing in provincial towns where alcohol fuelled violence is ubiquitous. Nobody ever got beaten up by someone on MDMA or marijuana, substitution from booze to drugs would make the world safer. But I digress.
Although nuclear has well publicised (and well exaggerated) risks so do all generating technologies, as illustrated by the below graph.
Lets look at a few examples. Coal generation is dirty. Burning it pollutes the air, not just global warming but soot and smoke clog the air and slowly choke people. Digging it up is also dangerous.
A different story can be told about wind power. Its generation is clean, but you have to use a lot of steel and other metals in the construction and because each turbine uses a lot of material relative to the amount of energy produced it contributes to more deaths than you’d expect.
Nuclear on the other hand is fastidious in its safety. Chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster by far, according to the IAEA, the UN’s nuclear arm, probably caused about 4,000 deaths. The Fukushima nuclear disaster, as opposed to the Fukushima Earthquake and Tsunami has so far killed precisely no one.
Lastly, look at Hydro. Looks pretty safe. But the largest catastrophes are not nuclear ones. The Banqiao Dam collapse in China and killed about 26,000 straight away and about 145,000 more later through famine and general devastation.
Without nuclear people would be using something else to generate their electricity. Much of Europe and the Eastern US would look like Poland and burn loads of coal. The mining and pollution of that coal would kill far more people that nuclear ever has thousands of times over.
So when it is reported that building nuclear power plants is expensive please bear this in mind. They are remarkably safe when you think about it. In fact, if people are serious about tackling climate change we’d probably (subject to a carbon tax’s implementation) see a lot more nuclear generation being built.
DISCLAIMER: as pointed out by Luis Enrique, I should have been clearer that I occasionally help produce events aimed at the nuclear sector. So don’t trust anything I say obviously.