The extraordinary safety of nuclear power

The Olkiluoto nuclear plant in Finland, which I visited four years ago

I want to say a bit more about last Friday’s nuclear debate at Exeter University.  I was struck by the misconceptions that were expressed.  The local Green Party man argued that Somali pirates were motivated to hi-jack ships and kidnap tourists as a protest against the social injustice caused by the nuclear industry (honest, I’m not making this up).  One speaker from the floor said she understood the safety statistics, but couldn’t we understand public concern over nuclear power when we remembered Chernobyl and Bhopal?  I had to point out that Bhopal was a chemical industry accident, and had nothing whatever to do with nuclear power.  Indeed she’d neatly illustrated my point that accidents and disasters occur from time to time in all major industries.  Within the electricity generation industry we need to look at the statistics to see which technologies are safer.

In my speech, I pointed out that many prominent environmentalists were now calling for nuclear energy.  There’s “Environmentalists for nuclear power”.  There’s James Lovelock of the Gaia hypothesis, and granddaddy of the environmental movement.  And George Monbiot, a lifetime opponent of nuclear who has just had a Damascene conversion to the cause.

But although I myself have been a long-time supporter of nuclear power, I must confess that I was bowled over by the statistics that I mugged up on before the debate.  Nuclear is not merely as safe as coal or gas or hydro.  It’s not just a bit safer.  It’s hugely safer, by several orders of magnitude.  That’s hundreds or thousands of times safer.

Over the three decades from 1969 to 1999, as many as 20,000 people died in the coal industry (we’ll come to effects on the general public later on).  Then there’s hydro, which we all like to think of as green and clean and safe and cuddly.  Over the reference period, more people died in hydro accidents than in coal; 30,000.   The figure for gas was 2000.  And nuclear?  Just 31.  Not 31 thousand.  Just 31.  All at Chernobyl.  A thousand times more people died in hydro accidents than in the nuclear industry.

Let’s look at the nuclear accidents that the Greens love to talk about.  Three Mile Island (USA 79): There was severe damage and a partial meltdown.  But radiation was largely contained, with no significant adverse health or environmental effects.

Then Chernobyl (Ukraine, 86):   There were 31 dead at the time.  The WHO suggests that the death toll could eventually reach 100 — but after 25 years, it hasn’t reached 100 yet.  (Some environmental groups claim the figure for premature deaths is up to 5,000).  We must also remember that the Chernobyl reactor was a very old Russian design, poorly-maintained and managed.  Compare cars: do you remember the dreadful old East German Trabant?  You might as well compare an old Trabant with a sparkly new BMW as compare the old-fashioned Chernobyl reactor with a modern 21st century reactor.

Finally, Fukushima (2011):  The 5th largest earthquake on record, plus a massive tsunami.  20,000 people (give or take) died from physical causes — the quake and the tidal wave.  How many have so far died from radiation?  None.  Zero.  Zilch.  In fact it was Fukushima that prompted George Monbiot’s unlikely conversion to nuclear.  He wrote an article entitled: How the Fukushima disaster taught me to stop worrying and embrace nuclear power.

In it, he said “A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

“But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power”.

Compare these events with disasters in other energy technologies.  The biggest peacetime explosion in the UK was not nuclear, but the Buncefield petrochemical depot explosion in 2005.  We had the BP Gulf of Mexico Deepwater Horizon event in 2010, with eleven dead and a huge environmental impact.  And remember the Torrey Canyon in 1967; the Amoco Cadiz in 1978; the Exxon Valdez 1989.

Looking at Hydro, almost no one has heard of the 2009 Sayano-Shushenskaya hydro accident, in Russia, that left 74 dead.  That’s twice as many as Chernobyl, yet no one noticed.  Then there was the Banqiao Reservoir Dam disaster, in 1975.  26,000 died immediately, and around an estimated 145,000 from consequent famine and disruption.  Total death toll 171,000 in one incident.  And you thought hydro was safe?

OK, I hear you asking, but what about all that nuclear waste which will sit there for millennia?  I remember on my 2007 visit to Olkiluoto on Finland, standing under1000 feet of granite looking at a vast underground cavern, with 30 years-worth of waste in a tiny pile in the corner.  I was with Spanish MEP Alejo Vidal Quadras, now a Vice-President of the parliament, and I’ll never forget what he said to me there: “Roger, nuclear waste disposal is simply a technical problem which has been solved”.

As Monbiot puts it: “Even if we assume that we’ll want to get rid of them (nuclear wastes), rather than use them as a valuable fuel, the claim that it’s unsafe to put fissile materials underground is inexplicable. Isn’t that where they came from? Why is it less safe to leave uranium several thousand metres below the surface, encased in lead, backfilled with bentonite and capped with concrete than it is to leave it, as nature did, scattered around the planet, just beneath the surface?”

Or let’s make a comparison, again, with coal (by the way I’m not saying we should abandon coal — merely that we need more work on emissions).  According to Scientific American, the “fly ash” emitted by coal-fired power stations is ever-so-slightly radioactive.  As a result, megawatt for megawatt, a coal-fired power station emits into the environment a hundred times as much radiation as a nuclear power station.

A careful trawl through Google suggests that there may have been, over the lifetime of the industry, a few hundred deaths from accidents associated with nuclear waste.  But it’s estimated that 20 to 30,000 people die prematurely each year in the USA alone, from coal-fired emissions, suffering from heart disease, cancer or respiratory conditions.   Some 750,000 are said to die each year in China from air pollution, which is mostly from coal-fired power stations (they’re building a new one every week, and they still have the same kind of “pea-souper” smogs that London endured in the early fifties).    At a conservative estimate, perhaps half a million people globally die prematurely from coal pollution every year.  Compare that to a few hundred (or even a few thousand, if you believe Greenpeace) over decades for nuclear waste or radiation leaks.  Nuclear is a thousand times safer.

I concluded my summing up by saying “The proposers have gone on about nuclear risks, but have simply failed to address the statistics showing that nuclear is hundreds or thousands of times safer than coal or hydro.  If you want to abandon nuclear for safety reasons, you must also logically call for all other mainstream base-load power generation technologies to be abandoned.  So if you’re voting for this motion, you’re voting for the end of an industrial economy.  You’re voting for an agrarian, peasant society.  It’s not too melodramatic to say that you’re voting for the end of civilisation as we know it”.

We won the vote!

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8 Responses to The extraordinary safety of nuclear power

  1. Russellw says:

    We design our reactor installations to withstand the maximum credible accident plus a safety factor. Fukushima had a number of recommendations from GE (USA) for modifications, many of which had not been done at the time of the accident there. It is an old design & the perceived max credible goalposts had moved with time, so these mods would have included ones to just keep up. I do not know the details but I would bet that if all the mods had been in, the result of the accident would have been different.

  2. Hugh Davis says:

    Roger, while I agree with all of the above isn’t it now (temporarily) irrelevant?
    If Matt Ridley is to be believed there is enough cheap shale gas around to last the whole world for the rest of the century – and it is much cheaper than the nuclear option!


    • I hope and believe you’re right, Hugh. But at this stage I wouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket. Nor would I want to make the same mistake again that we’ve already made — leaving such a huge gap between new nuclear installations that we lose the skills base.

  3. scottspeig says:

    While I am a supporter of nuclear power, isn’t the main problem not to do with deaths but the lasting consequences of a disaster? – Coal power stations if they fail spectacularly kill people, but then you can rebuild and carry on.

    In a nuclear meltdown (as seen in chernobyl) the land becomes unuseable. While I agree comparing that to now is not great, it is to do with the “worst-case scenario” that has me putting the stations on the Faroe Islands!! 🙂

  4. Peter Little says:


    I’ll start by saying that I’ve been prompted to look at the UKIP website by disenchancement with UP Conservative’s (as expressed by by local MP) apparent unwillingness to take unwanted EU immigration into my beutiful but already grossly overcrowded island seriously; but I digress!

    Re: Nuclear power:
    I agree that there doesn’t seem to be a real safety issue; althouggh ensuring there isn’t one accounts for a very large proportion of the high installation costs per MW of power.

    It seems to me that a huge (but neglected / ‘buried’) issue is the carbon dioxide produced by nuclear power systems /plant over their life cycle from construction, uranium mining, waste recycling and disposal and eventual safe demolition. Analysis (Stern and Smith ? – I go from memory) suggests that the CO2 produced could be 40% of the CO2 of that produced by fossil fueled plant delivering the same energy quantity. is this figure true? If it is, then it seems illogical to allocate so much capital; we would be better spending money on fossil fueled plant, energy efficiency and the like.

    I suspect the analysis (produced by Stern ?) would be disputed by the nuclear industry.

    This issue is surely central. What on earth is the truth?

    • Brin Jenkins says:

      Carbon dioxide is not any sort of problem, we need CO2, all living plants need CO2. Lets all grow more plants, who produce the oxygen we all need. Its a negative feedback loop that’s highly stable.

      CO2 is not the bogey man at all. Social engineering is.

  5. Anteaus says:

    The main safety isssues with nuclear are due to decisions made in the Cold War as to reactor design. In those days there was a dual requirement for plutonium as well as power, and that predisposed toward the PWR or BWR designs. These reactors have two main safety shortcomings, that pumped water is used for cooling (basically car radiator technology) therefore any coolant-flow failure leads to a dangerous overheating situation. The other is the use of inflammable materials such as zirconium which will burn in steam, liberating hydrogen gas, if hot enough. This turns a meltdown into an explosion.

    If reactors were designed specifically for power production then these safety shortcomings could be eliminated. Molten salt technology suggests itself as the best option. With no water involved in the primary coolant loop, and a noninflammable liquid fuel which can be rapidly dumped to a holding tank in the event of problems, this design offers far better safety.

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