Nuclear: Still the safest mainstream generating technology

“It would be madness to abandon our nuclear programme”, says Boris Johnson.  And despite the media hysteria going on at the moment, he’s right.  Russia has its hand on the gas taps.  There is chaos sweeping the Middle East and Arab oil fields.  The price of petrol is hitting record highs.  Greenpeace are at the door as I write, protesting against the extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada.  Energy security has never been so critical.

And despite the hype, nuclear is still the safest mainstream generating technology we have.

Let’s get it in perspective. Yesterday, in response to a histrionic spam e-mail against nuclear, I wrote: Industry deaths in Coal: >250,000.  In Hydro: >250,000.  In nuclear, fewer than 100. That’s actually one hundred — not an abbreviation for 100,000.  Nuclear is not just safer than coal or hydro — it’s safer by many orders of magnitude.

You may be surprised at the death rates in coal and hydro.  I certainly was.  But at one stage in China alone the annual death rate in the mines exceeded 10,000.  I believe it’s substantially below that today, but over time the numbers are huge.  We think of hydro as benign, clean, controllable — almost the ideal renewable energy.  But when an accident happens, it can be serious.  In the Banqiao Dam accident in China in 1975, the estimated death toll was between 90 and 230,000 people, with another 145,000 fatalities as a result of consequent epidemics and famine.  That’s just one incident.

Let’s recall that the largest peace-time explosion in the UK was not a nuclear accident, but the Buncefield disaster when a petroleum storage depot went up.  Yet few people are calling for us to abandon oil.

And just to put some scale on the issue, at a very conservative estimate certainly 250,000 people have died in car accidents.  And in the 1918 flu pandemic, estimates of the death rate worldwide range from 50 million to 100 million.  Compare that to fewer than 100 deaths in the nuclear industry.  Yet we worry more over nuclear energy than we do over influenza.

This morning a colleague sent me a chart from the Nuclear Energy Agency on mortality caused in Germany by emissions from different power technologies, expressed in years of life lost per gigawatt hour of generation.  Oil topped the list at 0.12.  Coal and lignite were mid-range at around 0.06.  Natural gas and PV around 0.02.  Wind and hydro around 0.01.  And nuclear the lowest of all at around 0.005.

Of course it is right for governments to review their nuclear plans in the light of the news from Japan as it develops.  It would be irresponsible to do otherwise.  But it is important to draw the right lessons from the Japanese crisis.  I think the obvious lesson is: don’t build nuclear power stations directly on a seismic fault line, and close to the sea. We in Britain have no plans to build in such circumstances — indeed thank heaven we don’t have sites like that.  There is simply no read-across from Fukushima to the UK.

Our job is to keep nuclear safe — not to abandon it.


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6 Responses to Nuclear: Still the safest mainstream generating technology

  1. An excellent post which clearly identifies the real risks of nuclear power, compared with the alternatives. Despite widespread media “hype” and anti-nuclear elements within the green lobby, nuclear energy remains “the safest mainstream generating technology” available to modern society. I recommnend to readers of this blog, that you also listen to Roger’s podcast about nuclear power and read his other related posts.

  2. Ross J Warren says:

    Roger your right, but as you also know you are also wrong. Nuclear power is safe until something goes wrong then it has the potential to be really deadly.
    A dumb burst a tens of thousands die, but the event is soon forgotten. A nuclear power plant produces waste that has a potential to cause damage for thousands of years. The more we use Nuclear Fuels the more waste we have to deal with. The cost will not be met in full by this generation, which is also a problem I have with it.

    • James H UK says:

      I agree that we are leaving a legacy of waste but are we naive in thinking that future generations wont be able to deal with it? This is a big old planet and are you ready to stop progress because you don’t think the human race and planet will be able to deal with what we create? Such lack of faith would surely halt all advancement? Nuclear power is a gift, we just need to be wise how we use it. Throwing in the towel and resorting to renewables, coal and gas is like deciding to throw away the motorcar and all technology surrounding it because we realise that it could be dangerous. Why walk when you can drive?

  3. m wood says:

    The troubles at Fukushima have just given the old CND campaigners an opportunity to vent all their old prejudices an
    gainst nuclear power!

  4. Jonathan Ward says:

    I quite agree (you may be shocked) about the comparative safety of the current nuclear fission sector in the UK (perhaps with the exception of BNFL) and how future generations of power stations will reduce risks and improve safety and efficiency. Radiation risks are often poorly understood, partly due to fear-mongering and the media’s general treatment of scientific and health issues. That’s not to say there aren’t dangers, but there are dangers and risks in all forms of power generation somewhere along the line.

    My reason for not being an advocate of nuclear fission, at least in its current strategy as espoused by Labour and the coalition, is that the models being proposed will have to resort to large public subsidies (and there is no adequate framework for ensuring future costs are contributed to now) – something under EU laws our energy providers should not have recourse to (take the case of British Energy in the European courts a few years ago). The nuclear industry has never worked in a competitive energy market due to the high capital and maintenance costs followed by the contribution to, in the UK’s case, the Nuclear Liabilities Fund for covering decommissioning and waste costs which are substantial over the long term and are the operator’s responsibility under international interpretation of the polluters pays principal.

    Our market system is not conducive to ensuring energy security is achieved. But the alternative is anathema to Conservative traditions – state support and control.

  5. John Hancon says:

    Mr Helmer, I am a newcomer to this site and as such forgive me if I am going over old ground. I should like to know if there has been any discussion on the merits of Thorium on your blog?

    Many thanks

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