Nuclear debate should include hazards of sticking with fossil fuel
22 March 2011
Stephen Hume of the Vancouver Sun highlights a robust debate about the future of nuclear energy. He says lets hear all the arguments for it and against it. Let's also keep things in perspective while we do.
American agencies post twicedaily summaries of readings that show only the usual fluctuations in background radiation levels that are always present. Meanwhile, concerns about radiation from Japan spread like a virus. An organic grocery store emails to let me know it has stockpiled iodinerich kelp pills just in case I want a natural radiation antidote.
American military surplus stores report brisk sales of chemical warfare suits and gas masks -although the gas masks won't protect their wearers from radiation. Panicky consumers in China launch a run on iodized salt despite warnings that it might cause more problems with hypertension than any radiation from Japan. Ditto for Russians in Vladivostok.
Back here, the run on potassium iodide pills is so intense that the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists, the American Thyroid Association, the Endocrine Society and the Society of Nuclear Medicine put out a joint statement urging people to stop hoarding pills that they won't need and shouldn't use because of side-effects. If you want something to be really worried about, though, try this. Uranium stocks tanked last week, an indication that the nuclear industry now faces an increasingly tough sell. Coal stocks, on the other hand, took off. What's the worry?
Burning more coal to produce electricity poses a greater threat to your health than the radiation released by the three worst nuclear accidents combined -Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. It's estimated by some risk analysts that for nuclear power to be as dangerous as burning coal, you'd need 25 meltdowns a year.
Premature deaths as a result of exposure to radiation released during the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor 25 years ago are now predicted for just over 200 people a year. That totals 16,000 deaths by 2065. This looks like a scary figure until you compare it to the premature deaths caused by inhaling fine particulate matter released during the burning of fossil fuels, of which coal is the worst.
Over the same period of time, the number of people dying prematurely from exposure to fossil fuel pollution will be 108 million. So, for every person killed by radiation from the Chernobyl accident, 6,750 will be killed by coal-fired electrical generating stations, household furnaces, fireplaces, barbecue briquettes, mowing the lawn and, of course, driving to the drugstore to pick up those potassium iodide pills. And that's just the fossil fuels. Another 32.4 million will be killed as a consequence of breathing second-hand tobacco smoke. In Canada, smoking alone will cause almost 120 deaths for every victim who dies prematurely as a result of exposure to radiation from the Chernobyl accident. In fact, for every radiation victim, 27 people will die prematurely from exposure to particles emitted in the upper atmosphere by passenger aircraft flying at 35,000 feet. So people flying home from Tokyo posed a bigger risk here than radiation for Fukushima. One should also, I suppose, add in the 63 million premature deaths that will occur between now and 2065 because of traffic accidents -one more consequence of burning fossil fuels. So let's add them up. It turns out that for every person expected to die prematurely because of exposure to radiation from the worst nuclear accident in history, 12,741 will die before their time thanks to exposure to fossil fuel emissions.
Put another way, the calculation of premature deaths per terawatt hour of energy production comes to this conclusion: for coal, 161; for oil, 36; for biofuels, 12; for natural gas, four; for nuclear, 0.04. Let's by all means have a robust debate about the future of nuclear energy. Let's hear all the arguments for it and against it. Let's also keep things in perspective while we do.