The Price Of Non-Nuclear Energy: 3,000 Lives Per Day

Never before have the costs of energy been so starkly illustrated in the period of a few months. The Deepwater Horizon gulf oil spill disaster, The Middle East riots to overturn petrodictators fueled by billions of dollars of oil payments, Massey Energy’s coal mining disaster and now Fukushima.

As in the past, many wrongly now want nuclear power, which supplies 20% of US electricity, unplugged. To be sure, some nuclear plants, such as those fueled by plutonium, are past their lifespans, or in dangerous places like earthquake faults should be closed, but eliminating nuclear is a mistake.

About the same number of people die every day from conventional energy than have died from nuclear power in its 60 year history according to the World Health Organization. About 3,000 people per day die by producing and burning conventional fuels. Conveniently for the oil & coal industry, most die silently one by one from cancer or other diseases from vehicle and (chiefly coal) powerplant emissions of lead, mercury, NOx, sulfur and other nasties. About 10 people per day die in coal mining accidents. Tens of thousands more are imprisoned, abused or die at the hands of petrodictators such as Qaddafi, Amedinajhad or the Saudi princes. 1,000,000 deaths per year. Over 30 million deaths since Three Mile Island.
Some of these petrodictatorships such as Saudi Arabia are actively supported by the United States who arm their militaries and help build their prisons in exchange for stable supplies of oil. Yet until recent uprisings, we rarely hear about these abuses.

For those who say these effects do not factor in a “worst case” nuclear event such as Chernobyl, we should recognize conventional energy’s environmental catastrophes ranging from
global climate change, to major pollution incidents such as the Deepwater Horizon blowout to everyday Mountaintop Removal coalmining that destroys large areas of ecosystem.

Renewables are not without costs either. Current (inefficient) generations of renewable fuels such as ethanol from inefficient sources like corn require subsidies and can drive up the price of food by replacing food crops. Large solar arrays can create “heat islands” that make ecosystems wilt. Renewables will improve and surely part of the long-term solution, but they are not free lunches.

There are those who will say that nuclear energy should be banned as a result of the Fukushima incident. This is a foolish kneejerk reaction because rare nuclear incidents suffer the “Titanic Syndrome” that fixate the news industry like airliner crashes vs. the 3,000 silent deaths per day caused by conventional energy,

To this failed logic, we must reply that conventional energy is more dangerous and not let oil and coal industries dangerously profit from this moment such as
their current lobbying to overturn pollution legislation that would save an estimated 17,000 lives per year in the U.S.

Like reducing deadly pollution from conventional energy is wise, nuclear safety can and should be improved Here are some places to start.

  • First, close all plutonium fueled reactors because this fuel is simply too dangerous (radioactivity lasts millions of years), and close reactors are in risky locations such as those prone to severe earthquakes.
  • Second, store spent fuel away from reactors where they are catastrophically dangerous should an incident occur as Fukushima has shown. Reactors such as Fukushima that store spent fuel ON TOP of the reactor should be closed unless / until they can be re-engineered with offsite storage. The US (Japan similarly) must rectify its failure to complete its long-term nuclear fuel storage facility at Yucca Mountain thus leaving 30+ years of spent fuel rods lying dangerously onsite in open pools (zoom out to see these are at Diablo Canyon powerplant) at over 100 nuclear powerplants across the U.S. While Yucca Mountain is being completed, remove spent fuel from storage pools when cool enough (about a year) and store in dry-casks far away from reactors at sites such as the DOE Waste Isolation Pilot Plant .
  • Third, move coastal reactor infrastructure (e.g. backup generators, pumps) along with backup coolant storage tanks (gravity feed) to higher ground such as at California’s Diablo Canyon. Ensure at least one month of backup fuel is available for backup generators to allow extended fully independent cooling operations should electrical grids fail.

All new-built reactors must be of one the approved “passive safety” designs which are rated 100x safer than existing designs. In a passive-safety design, if systems fail (or a shutdown is triggered by an earthquake or other sensor), gravity drops control rods into place that shut the reactor down and cooling occurs naturally without need for human intervention, backup power or cooling pumps. If (and only if) long-term nuclear waste storage facilities are built, this kind of nuclear power may be one of the safest long-term energy sources.

Taking away nuclear power means adding to the hundreds of thousands of deaths per year already caused by fossil fuels and putting more dollars in the hands of petrodictators that destabilize the world. Government’s should not let the knee-jerk happen, just as they should not ban drilling offshore because of one well blowout in 35 years. Equally importantly, we must get serious about legislation to make our cars, homes and lighting more energy efficient. If we embrace that, we can decommission old powerplants, cut conventional pollution, drive down the price of oil and put less money in the pockets of petrodictators. Plan?
blog comments powered by Disqus