With the current nuclear power plant kerfuffle1 in Japan, people are making comparisons with a TMI-Chernobyl scale, with TMI being a nuclear accident that is not bad at all2 and Chernobyl being the worst case scenario.3 This is actually very reassuring, because Chernobyl was really no big deal.4
The event itself killed dozens of workers and rescue personnel, but the number of people killed in nuclear power plant accidents in total, including Chernobyl and all the other active plant accidents ever, is still far lower in terms of energy produced by that method than the number of people killed falling off their roof putting up solar panels5 (see statistics provided below).6
The radiation from Chernobyl fell over farmland and populated areas, but most of the people affected were children who were fine once their thyroids were removed7, and besides, Chernobyl was one of a handful of events that together brought down the Soviet Union. Those children and their families are much better off now that they are part of their own countries and experiencing full-on democracy.8 Some farmers lost the ability to sell their products for a while, but only in a limited area.9 It is not as though the radiation from Chernobyl fell on the entire planet and made every single acre of farmland unusable, or anything bad like that.10
Worldwide, there are 147 nuclear power plants larger than 1,000 MW in current capacity operating at this time or under construction (source). There are 401 coal powered stations of similar size characteristics (source). There are 87 Natural Gas power stations of 50 MW or larger.11
The total capacity of these nuclear reactors is 375,166 MW. For the coal plants, the total capacity is 812,632 MW and for the natural gas plants the capacity is 116,335 MW.12
There have been about 19 major nuclear power plant accidents since January 1961 resulting directly in 64 deaths, most of which were at one location (53 at Chernobyl).13 That is nothing compared to the number of people who have died in coal mining accidents (source). One single coal mining accident can kill that many people.14
If you stand near a nuclear power plant that is melting down while the engineers are releasing hydrogen gas and steam built up in the reactor, you might not even be exposed.15 But say you are. Just say you are standing down wind, say, three miles from the plant. The total amount of radiation you will be exposed to is16 far less in terms of its influence on your chance of getting cancer than, say, smoking twenty cigarettes a day for thirty years.17 Smoking like that will make you sick. Standing several miles from a nuclear plant during a melt down probably won’t. And if it does, it will probably only affect you years later, and by that time, you’ll probably have already died in a coal mine. If you are a coal miner. If not, a car accident. Cars are far more dangerous than nuclear power plants, and this is something people just need to accept.18
In fact, it could be argued that nuclear power is too safe.19 How can I say that?20 Because it is true! If nuclear power was ten times less safe than it is now, only 600 or so people would have died in the entire history of nuclear power (see statistics provided above).21 That is still a tiny percentage, in terms of death per unit energy production, than windmills or solar panels or any other kind of energy production (source). What would be the advantage of reducing safety in nuclear power? Cost! By reducing safety requirements and letting a reactor go bad every now and then, nuclear power would finally become the cheap, clean energy we all thought it would be when it was first invented.22
And I’m totally down with that.23
Read . The. Footnotes.
After a day or so of comments (the first 49, above) I’ve decided it is time to add the footnotes. Some people read too fast. Others are just dim. Still others are ornery and mean spirited. For a few, English is not the first language. Yet more are curious and analytical. In all cases, it may be fun, and is certainly necessary, to examine this essay more closely to see the ways in which it is meant to be a biting commentary of uncritical blinder-bearing pro-nuclear apologetics. I had thought about adding footnotes when I first wrote it but thought it would interfere with the flow, and also, not allow for exactly what happened to happen.
The entire essay is based on things I’ve read about nuclear power, but often slightly twisted or re-contextualized, and in a few cases exaggerated. No one who knows me, reads my blog, and read this essay with a modicum of attention could think it is anything other than a satire meant not to amuse but rather to provide a sharp slap across some metaphorical faces. But, not everyone knows me, not everyone reads this blog, and not everyone has the time to slow down and give a blog post they happen across more than a speed read. There have, indeed, been times when I’ve read something I was not sure of, thinking it may have been a parody or a satire, and somewhat frustrated, clicked the browser tab away and into oblivion, lacking the time or patience to deal with it. Satire designed to amuse is always easy to spot. It has to be, or at least, it is better if it is. But that is not what this is. Obviously. If you look.
Thus, the following notes:
1Kerfuffle? A clue. A kerfuffle is not multiple nuclear reactors partly melting down and spent fuel rods bursting randomly into flames and buildings exploding and radiation getting everywhere.
2 If you think this is not an outrageous statement then you’ve been brainwashed by the Nuclear Power Apologists (NPA’s) who really do want everyone to think that nothing happened at TMI. While it may be true that there was not a massive radiation release, the core did melt down, and the reactor had to be dismantled and specially manged over a period of decades. Yes, we are very proud of you, Nuclear Power Industry, and impressed as hell that the TMI plant did not disintegrate or experience a China Syndrome like in that movie that came out about the same time. But the accident at TMI was very costly, very dangerous, and required decades of careful and strategic management. No one thinks it was “not bad at all.” It was bad.
3Chernobyl is not the worst case scenario. It is the worst accident to date.
4Not even nuclear apologists say this. Do let me know if you can find an example, but I don’t think you will.
5There are two things going on here. First, the assumption that we should or could compare energy industries on the basis of death rates is unfounded. People seem to do this all the time but people also jam small rodents into their own anuses, and that’s probably not a good idea either. A power industry that requires mining vs one that does not are not really comparable. The potential cost of a hydroelectric dam breaking or a nuclear plant melting down, in terms of human lives, depends more on external contingencies (where to people live, to be exact) to make cross-industry or even cross-incident comparisons quantitatively meaningful. Second, even if you do want to make these comparisons (and I have yet to seem them made in a valid way) the one given here is an obviously absurd one. This comparison is between nuke plant workers (etc.) and builders of solar panels. The former are operational, the latter construction, the former professional, and I assume in many cases, the latter vocational. It is like comparing the number of astronauts who die in space with the number of people who die carrying out home improvement projects. Absurd.
I don’t want to totally rule out the possibility of comparing the human toll of different industries. I’m simply a) not happy with any of the approaches I’ve seen and b) reject the idea that it is the primary determining criterion for what policy to pursue.
6This is just a dig on the nuclear version of the gish gallop or other “watch the monkey” strategies we see used so often. I had thought of tossing in a short three paragraph essay on neutrinos as well, but didn’t. I could add that later.
7I have actually seen it said that the cancer scare associated with Chernobyl was overplayed because even though there were 5,000 cases or so most of them were children who easily survived the thyroid cancer. Of course, those thyroids were removed, and those people are on medication for the rest of their lives. And not all of them lived. And so on. So this item is an offensive statement plucked pretty much right out of the NPA rhetoric.
8This is what my brain cooked up to replicate and make fun of an imagined chimera combining Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. Then I got a headache and threw up in my mouth a little and had to take a nap. I’m OK now.
9Limited area known as Eastern and Central Europe. Or whatever.
10This is funny. I’m making a major disaster that affected a lot of people and a lot of landscape seem minor by comparing it to the entire planet being blanketed with radiation. I’m not sure that there is a way in which this can not be seen as over the top absurd satire. But just in case: It was.
11Gish Gallop (see above)
12More of the same.
13Did you believe this? It isn’t accurate. It only counts on line in service nuclear reactors, and thus excludes some accidents and probably some deaths. But it was part of the Gish Gallop, so you didn’t question it.
14This is typical of many comments seen in comments on this blog, in the NPA rhetoric, and elsewhere, and was touched on above. It is not valid to compare those working in plants of one industry with those mining in another. If you tried to combine nuclear plant plus mining deaths to coal plant plus mining deaths (per unit power or whatever) you couldn’t because you would not have the data on mining deaths (and illnesses) for uranium from the two or three African countries where miners did or still do work on the mines in utter ignorance of what radiation is and taking no safety precautions at all. The very fact that these number can’t be calculated makes ANY AND ALL ATTEMPTS TO USE SUCH NUMBERS unequivocally and undeniably racist, anti-humanitarian, nefarious, evil and inappropriate.
15Typical example of absurd what-if snarky statement made to make those concerned about nuclear power look like pussyasstreehuggingwimps. Or whatever.
16… is .. unknown. It is not possible to present an example that is realistic in this manner.
17That, folks, is a comparison I’ve seen made in a number of sources, unchanged and unadulterated for your observation. I didn’t have to parodize that one. Unbelievably.
18Frankly, at this point, I had assumed anyone reading this would have caught on by now that this is satire, so I slipped into my Dan Akroyd voice and just made it funny. I mean, this is funny. My bad for thinking everyone would be on board at this point!
19How can I say that?
21More galloping, and the exact argument so many make for real; Driving is so dangerous that NOTHING including nuclear melt downs, widespread availability of cheap guns, or anything needs to be considered a problem. And yes, as I have noted elsewhere, NPA’s look exactly like NRA’s, don’t they?
22Yes, I totally expect to see this quoted somewhere, some time. But it is a trap. Obviously.
I hope you have enjoyed this satire of the rhetorical style of Nuclear Power Apologists. Please note that the above post is not a statement about Fukushima, Nuclear Power, or other sources of energy. It is, more specifically, an indictment (though somewhat tongue in cheek, to a limited extent) of the use of rhetoric to support a position while remaining blind to obvious changes one should really take in regards to that support. My position on energy policy is not represented here. My position is that we should use, rather than burn off, gas from oil wells, convert braking into electricity instead of heat in vehicles, build a smart grid, learn that 24-7 electricity is not a right or even a need, recognize that wind and solar should not be pursued along with nuclear, but rather, the other way round: Nuclear should be kept in mind as an option to pursue along with wind, solar, geothermal, etc. I reject the use of the term “alternative” for what should be “primary, focuses.” The prospect of ocean acidification is worse than the prospect of the occasional nuclear disaster. But, when a nuclear disaster happens, I reject, abhor, and despise the use of that disaster as a platform for arguing in favor of maintaining our current policy. Every disaster seems to be preceded by danger denialism, caused in large part by lack of what should have been necessary preparation and design often, in turn, caused by short term financial interests or the politicization of the process, and followed by post-hoc excuse making by Nuclear Power Apologists. (See comments below for good examples of that.)
For more information and essays about the Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Reactor problems in Japan CLICK HERE. The numbered updates are meant to be a record of headlines over time, showing changing perceptions as well as the dynamic between the press and events (e.g., the death toll in disasters like this usually follows an interesting pattern). Also, those updates include Analiese Miller’s feed, which is mainly from live news from Japan.