Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why Coal is Worse Than Nuclear

The anti-nuclear lobby in some countries can be very strong: so strong, in fact, that merely the fear of it taking action can shape a country's domestic politics. Take Germany as an example: although the political attitude towards nuclear power in Germany had been shifting since the first Red-Green government took power in 1998, nuclear power accounted for 25% of Germany's electricity generation in 2011. With its very low carbon intensity, nuclear power was to help Germany achieve the strict de-carbonization targets it has set for itself.

Today, nuclear energy generates only 18% of Germany's electricity, and is set to be phased out completely by 2022. Why did this happen? The answer is that Germany made a sudden turn after the March 2011 Fukushima Daiichi accident. Suddenly, all of Germany's political parties agreed that nuclear power generation has no place in the country.

To be able to withstand the phasing out of its nuclear power generation, Germany had to find a new source of energy. That source is coal, which now accounts for more than half of Germany's electricity generation, compared to 43% in 2011. The share of coal is set to increase even further as more nuclear power plants are turned off.

For opponents of nuclear in Germany, this is a major victory. The chances that any German citizen dies as a result of a nuclear accident will be wildly diminished. But is the victory really as big as German politicians say? Or, in fact, is it a victory at all?

Unfortunately for Germany, the phasing out of nuclear in favor of coal is not a victory but an outright loss. The pollution from burning coal and other solid fuels is responsible for 4 million worldwide deaths annually according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition, compared with any other fossil fuel, and with nuclear, coal is by far the deadliest for its workers. Although there are no accurate figures, BBC estimates that about 12,000 people die every year from coal mining accidents.

Compared to coal, nuclear power is a much safer option. In the history of nuclear power, only about 1,000 people died as a result of nuclear power plant meltdowns, or approximately 2 deaths per year on average. Of those, 99% died in Chernobyl (note: in Fukushima, people died from Tsunami and not from the nuclear meltdown). Compare that to the four million and twelve thousand deaths caused by coal every year, and you see that every year coal kills about 2 million times more people than nuclear. From this perspective, every nuclear power plant that replaces a coal power plant saves livesA recent study by NASA quantified this relationship, calculating that nearly 80,000 deaths are prevented annually by nuclear power.

80,000 deaths every year are prevented by nuclear power. Source: NASA.

So why did German politicians decide to eliminate nuclear power generation, even though the decision in fact kills people? In my opinion, the underlying reason is psychological: people fear what they do not understand. It is like flying on a plane: while it is statistically much less likely to die in a plane crash than in a car accident, most people still fear flying more than driving a car or crossing a road. Nevertheless, when a plane crash occurs, the news is full of it, further instilling the irrational fear of flying in people who are already prone to dreading it.

The same problem is with nuclear. When a nuclear reactor melts down, like it did in Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island (the only three nuclear accidents in history), the media cover the event for months at a time. Simultaneously, when a coal mining accident happens, many media overlook it. Take the example of the coal mining accident that occurred in Turkey yesterday night (13 May 2014). Over 200 miners are confirmed dead, and many more are still unaccounted for. Nevertheless, some of the most read newspapers, such as The New York Times, did not even mention the accident.

NYT did not report on Turkey mine blast (14/05/2014, 09:00)
Al-Jazeera did report on Turkey mine blast (14/05/2014, 09:00)

So what is the moral of the story? People are irrational creatures who fear the unknown. The media know it and jump at every opportunity to sell a sensational story. Politicians know it, too, and jump at every opportunity that could raise their approval ratings. Therefore we live in a world where newspapers are read that show a distorted picture of reality, politicians are reelected who do not deserve to be, and more people die than need to.

A savvy reader may ask me: why do you promote nuclear power over renewable energy? Would it not be better for Germany to scrap both nuclear and coal in favor of wind, solar, biomass and other renewable technologies? In an ideal world, it would. However, current renewables have one problem: they are intermittent. Wind does not blow all the time, and the sun only shines so many hours a day. But coal can burn and nuclei can fission at any time of the day. Thus, a second moral of the story: we need a renewable energy source that can follow demand. So, rather than waste your energy on shunning nuclear (or coal), go out there and invent one!

Disclaimer: this article is in no way meant to promote one media source over another. It merely serves to illustrate the choices that media make every day.


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