Nuclear Power Vs Renewable Energy – Fossil fuels are very dirty and dangerous energy sources, while nuclear and modern renewable energy sources are safer and cleaner. The differences are huge.
All sources of energy have negative effects. But there is a big difference between them in terms of size: as we will see, fossil fuels are the dirtiest and most dangerous, while nuclear and modern renewable energy sources are safer and cleaner.
From the perspective of human health and climate change, the transition to nuclear power is less important
Energy has been critical to the human progress we’ve seen in the last few centuries. As the United Nations rightly says: “Energy is central to almost every major challenge and opportunity facing the world today.”
But while energy offers us great benefits, it is not without its disadvantages. Energy production can negatively impact human health and the environment in three ways.
The first is air pollution: millions of people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution. Fossil fuel and biomass burning – wood, dung and coal – are responsible for most of these deaths.
Another accident. This includes accidents that occur when fuels are sold and extracted – coal, uranium, rare metals, oil and gas. And it also includes accidents that occur during transportation of raw materials and infrastructure, construction or maintenance of power plants.
The third is the emission of greenhouse gases: fossil fuels are the main source of greenhouse gases, the main driver of climate change. In 2020, 91% of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuels and industry.
No energy source is completely safe. All have short-term effects on human health, whether through air pollution or accidents. And all of these contributing to climate change have long-term effects.
But, the difference between each of them is huge. Fossil fuels are the dirtiest and most dangerous in the short term, and emit the most greenhouse gases per unit of energy. This means that there are no compromises, thank God: low-carbon energy sources are also safe. From the perspective of human health and climate change, the transition to nuclear power is less important
Before looking at the long-term effects of climate change, let’s review how each source stacks up in terms of short-term health risks.
Death from all sources: Fossil fuels still dominate our global electricity mix, so we’d expect them to kill more people.
. It is measured in terawatt hours. A terawatt hour is equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of approximately 150,000 EU citizens. 2
Let’s see this comparison in a chart. Fossil fuels and biomass kill far more people per unit of electricity than nuclear and modern renewables. Coal is the dirtiest.
However, these estimates for fossil fuels may be too conservative. They are based on European power plants, which have good pollution control, and are based on old models of the health effects of air pollution. As I will discuss in more detail at the end of this article,
Based on recent air pollution research the death rate from fossil fuels may be even higher.
Two accidents greatly affected our views on the safety of nuclear energy: Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986, and Fukushima in Japan in 2011. These were tragic events. However, compared to the millions of people who die from fossil fuels
The final death toll was very low. To calculate the death rates used here I assume 433 deaths from Chernobyl and 2,314 from Fukushima.
Hydropower is another resource that has been hit hard by many major accidents. The death rate since 1965 is 1.3 deaths per TWh. This rate is almost entirely dominated by one event: the failure of the Banqiao Dam in China in 1975. About 171,000 people were killed. Otherwise, hydropower was very safe, with only a 0.04 fatality rate per TWh – similar to nuclear, solar and wind.
After all, we need sun and wind. The death rate from these two sources is low, but not zero. Few people die in supply chain accidents – from helicopter collisions with turbines; Fire during turbine or panel installation; and an outbreak at offshore wind sites.
People often focus on the marginal differences at the bottom of the chart – between nuclear, solar and wind. This comparison is misleading: the uncertainty in these values means that they may overlap.
For example, nuclear power causes 99.9 percent fewer deaths than brown coal. 99.8% less than coal; 99.7% less than oil; And 97.6% less than gas. Wind and solar are equally safe.
Think how many deaths each source would cause for an average EU city of 150,000 people, which uses – as I said before – one hour of electricity per year. Let’s call this city ‘Iroville’.
Every year 25 people die prematurely because of this. Most of these people will die due to air pollution.
The good news is that there is no trade-off between the safest energy sources in the short term, and the sources that are least harmful to the climate in the long term. They are the same, as the diagram below shows.
In the chart, on the left, we have the same comparison of death rates from accidents and air pollution as we saw. On the right we have the amount of greenhouse gases we emit
These emissions are not only from burning the fuel, but also from mining, transportation and maintenance throughout the life of the power plant.
Coal, again, is the dirtiest fuel. It emits far more greenhouse gases than any other source – hundreds of times more than nuclear, solar and wind.
Oil and gas are worse than nuclear and renewable energy, but to a lesser extent than coal.
Unfortunately, fossil fuels still dominate the global electricity mix: coal, oil and gas make up about 60%. If we want to stop climate change, we have a great opportunity: we can move away from nuclear and renewable energy, and reduce deaths from accidents and air pollution.
This step will not only protect future generations, but will have huge health benefits for the current generation.
The average death rate from fossil fuels is likely to be higher than indicated in the chart above
The death rates from coal, oil, and gas that we use in these comparisons come from Anil Markandia and Paul Wilkinson’s (2007) medical journal article.
. So far, these are the best peer-reviewed references I could find on mortality from these sources. These prices are based on electricity production in Europe.
However, there are three main reasons why I think these mortality rates are probably too conservative, and they are
Another reason to suspect that the global average rate is much higher than this: if we take the mortality rates from Markandia and Wilkinson (2007) and multiply them by global electricity production, the resulting mortality estimate is Global total from fossil fuel electricity. Less than the last study.
If I multiply Markandia and Wilkinson’s (2007) death rates for coal, oil and gas by their global electricity production in 2021, I get a total of 280,000 deaths.9
This is much lower than estimates from more recent studies. For example, Leliveld et al. (2018) that 3.6 million die each year due to fossil fuels. 10 Vohra etc. (2021) more than double that number: 8.7 million.11
Production But we can estimate how many deaths occur. In a recent paper, Liewald and colleagues analyzed the breakdown of air pollution deaths by sector. They estimate that 12 percent of it
By my calculations, between 1.1 million and 2.55 million people are likely to die from fossil fuel consumption.
We estimate the mortality rate from Markandia and Wilkinson (2007) to be 4 to 9 which is very low. This suggests that the actual death rate may be 4 to 9 times higher than fossil fuels.
Unfortunately, we don’t have more recent death rates for coal, oil and gas to reference here, but better estimates are needed. The mortality rates shown now are likely to be discounted.
The data we refer to regarding nuclear, solar and wind accidents is based on the most comprehensive data we have. However, they are not complete, and there is no existing data set that tracks these accidents. This is a significant gap in our understanding of the security of energy sources – and how their security changes over time.
To estimate mortality from renewable energy technologies, Sovacool et al. (2016) compiled a database of energy-related accidents in academic databases and news reports. They define an accident as “an incident or unexpected event at an energy facility that causes one (or more) deaths or
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