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How Dangerous Really is Nuclear Energy?

Photo by Vladyslav Cherkasenko

One of the most commonly debated topics in today’s society is how we will transition to an energy grid that is carbon-neutral. Because reliance on fossil fuels is condemned due to their climate effects, two alternatives are often considered: renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind turbines and nuclear, which produces energy by splitting elements like uranium to power a generator. Although renewables have enormous upside, they are reliant on geographical conditions, such as the amount of sunlight or the right landscape to build a dam.

Additionally, most estimations say it would take roughly 30 years to transition to a 100% renewable grid, which might be too slow considering the rate of climate change. On the contrary, nuclear energy is a historically established method of producing carbon-free and efficient energy. Countries like France receive about 70% of their energy from nuclear and pay 41% less when compared to neighboring countries like Germany.

Although the data shows nuclear power as an excellent candidate for mass-energy production, its reputation is quite inconsistent due to events like Chernobyl and Fukushima. However, how do these incidents compare with the effects of renewable energy and fossil fuels?

The most infamous nuclear incident is the Chernobyl Disaster of 1986. It occurred as the result of a few overlapping circumstances, such as a flawed reactor design and poor maintenance. The most pessimistic death estimation was based on research from the European Green Party, stating that between 30,000 and 60,000 people will die as a result of Chernobyl’s effects by 2056.

On the other hand, the World Health Organization conducted a study in 2005 that stated the number is between 4,000 and 9,000. The reason for such a large gap in estimations is due to the different ideologies of how much radiation is required to contribute to death. In addition, some studies only surveyed countries with very close proximity to the incident such as Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus, while others took all of Europe into account. 

The most recent nuclear accident to occur was Fukushima Daiichi in 2011. Although still a horrible event, the nuclear technology being used was far more advanced, and the initial response was much quicker when compared to Chernobyl. The current death toll is 574, but this number is almost exclusively related to the stress of the evacuation and mainly occurred in elderly populations. Although it is impossible to know the number of long-term deaths due to how recent it occurred, most studies predict it will be somewhere between 1,000 and 1,600. 

Although these catastrophes have produced awful short and long-term effects, when put in context against the statistics of renewable and fossil fuel-related deaths, nuclear energy appears far safer than what the media portrays it to be.

In the world of renewable energy, the Banqiao Hydroelectric Dam Catastrophe is known as one of the most disastrous events to ever occur. The causes of it show great similarity to Chernobyl’s poor maintenance and a lack of urgency by an authoritarian regime.

The presence of a large typhoon sparked a chain reaction which led to the destruction of 61 dams and waves above 30 feet, decimating the Chinese countryside. The total death count of the Banqiao incident is estimated to be between 85,000 and 240,000, which mostly came from reasons related to the lack of an emergency evacuation plan, such as famine and water contamination.

However, fossil fuel-related deaths are where the real damage is done. In 2018, Harvard University researched how many deaths that year resulted from fossil fuel emissions. The number ended up being over 8,000,000, which is about double our previous estimates. To provide perspective, the most pessimistic estimation of Chernobyl-related deaths(60,000) is about .75% of the number of people that died from fossil fuel emissions in 2018.

Although the death toll from fossil fuels is magnitudes higher than any other source, it also provides 80% of our earth’s energy, which is why a per-capita measurement is the only way to compare the different sources fairly. Luckily, Anil Markandya and Paul Wilkinson conducted a study in 2007 that compared how many deaths occurred from each energy source per one terawatt-hour(TWh), which is roughly the annual energy consumption of 187,000 European citizens. In this context, a society powered only by fossil fuels would suffer about 46 deaths per year.

On the other hand, one powered by renewables would experience a single death every 12.5 years and roughly 14 years with nuclear energy. In addition, the effects of this study can be comprehended much better if we scale up the numbers to a city like Berlin, Germany, which is about 19 times the size of our terawatt-consuming population. Over just one year, 872 deaths would be prevented by operating on purely nuclear energy as opposed to fossil fuels; over 50 years, this number would grow to 43,600.

In a time when humans are turbulently struggling to reduce their carbon emissions, it is quite worrisome to see countries like Japan and Germany shutting off functional nuclear plants, only to replace them with increased coal production, leading to more unnecessary deaths every year.

Although the public perception of nuclear energy is unrealistically negative, decades of research have solidified the claim that it is one of the safest ways of producing energy, regardless of the outcome of a few incidents. As we look to the future for ways to combat climate change, society should not be so quick to dismiss nuclear as a viable method for reducing our carbon footprint; it could be extremely valuable in providing large amounts of energy until renewables can operate by themselves.

REFERENCES

Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. (n.d.). Typhoon Nina–Banqiao dam failure. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Typhoon-Nina-Banqiao-dam-failure.

Feldhoff, T. (n.d.). Post-Fukushima energy paths: Japan and Germany compared – Thomas Feldhoff, 2014. SAGE Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0096340214555108#_i7.

Ritchie, H. (n.d.). What was the death toll from Chernobyl and Fukushima? Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/what-was-the-death-toll-from-chernobyl-and-fukushima.

Leah Burrows | Press contact. (2021, February 9). Deaths from fossil fuel emissions higher than previously thought. Home Page. https://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2021/02/deaths-fossil-fuel-emissions-higher-previously-thought.

Ritchie, H. (n.d.). What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy? Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/safest-sources-of-energy.

McElroy, B. (2020, August 18). The U.S. can be powered 100% by renewable energy. How do we get there? pv magazine USA. https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2020/08/11/the-u-s-can-be-powered-100-by-renewable-energy-how-do-we-get-there/.

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