24 July 2012
Sixty years ago we were in love with nuclear power. The new atomic age promised super-fast aircraft, cars and even vacuum cleaners powered by reactors. Most of all, it heralded a new age of clean, cheap and inexhaustible energy. But it’s fair to say that the love affair is well and truly over.
These days we see nuclear power plants as barely tamed demons, straining to unleash Armageddon and barely held in check by the feeble humans that operate them.
The earthquake that last year caused accidents at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power station – and the recent revelation that human failure contributed to it – have only served to reinforce our mistrust of this most dangerous of creatures.
But is it fair?
There have been several recent studies on occupational deaths in mines, oil rigs and power plants that include fatalities indirectly related to power generation – such as those caused by air pollution or radiation.
These have all shown that energy generated from fossil fuels, in particular coal, comes with the highest death toll by a huge margin – and that the safest way to power the planet is with nuclear energy.
At Fukushima, two workers were killed in an explosion caused by a build-up of hydrogen and several hundred died as an indirect result of the disaster.
But so far there have been no reports of radiation-related deaths, although the highest estimates show up to 1,000 people could be at risk.
At Chernobyl – the nuclear industry’s worst disaster – two people died in an explosion and another 28 perished as a result of radiation exposure in the months that followed the 1986 meltdown. The most pessimistic estimates predict that up to 33,000 premature deaths will be caused by emissions over the long term.
But in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese cities where America dropped atomic bombs in 1945, researchers tracked 120,000 residents to study long-term mortality rates. By 2000, more than 42,000 of the residents had died – but only 822 of those deaths were deemed to be related to radiation exposure.
Compare this with the 3million lives that pollution from coal-burning power plants claims every year.
Add that to the six coal miners that die every day in China alone and you’ve really got to ask: Why do we honestly think energy extracted from coal is safer?
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Source: CosmOnline, Ben Gilliland