Safety and Electricity production

As part of the nuclear debate I’ve been trying to get my head around the safety question. On the face of it the safety of an electricity production technology should be a straight forward comparison to make. What we want to know is how much energy does a given type of fascility produce over it’s life veruses how many people is it expected to kill. Of course there are some complications and contraversy depending on what you include and what you exclude. Do we include the millions or maybe billions that some think will die as a result of man made global warming? Can we really presume that a nuclear power plant stops killing people after it is decommissioned? Should the energy used in building the fascility be subtracted from the energy it produces over it’s life? To be accurate all of these factors should be considered. We should include deaths in construction and associated mining of construction materials, death in decommisioning, deaths in fuel transport, maintenance deaths, pollution deaths, catastrophic accident related deaths (eg dams collapsing, nuclear plants melting down). However even without all of these perfectly accounted for in the mix we can still get some sense of the safety associated with different technologies.

Most of the numbers I use below come from this article:

I’ll quote the figures and then try some modest qualification of them. The units used for measuring energy is TWh which stands for Terrawatt hours. A terrawatt is a measure of power. Power is a rate of energy output. So a terrawatt hour is the energy that you get from a terrawatt power source that operates for one hour. 1 terawatt hour = 3.6 × 1015 joules. It is roughly the amount of electric energy that 85000 Australians would use in a year.

The Death Rate is merely the number of lives lost per TWh of energy produced.

Energy Source                  Death Rate (deaths per TWh)

Coal – world average         161
Coal – China                           278
Coal – USA                             15
Solar (rooftop)                    0.44
Wind                                        0.15
Hydro                                     0.10
Nuclear                                  0.04
Chernobyl alone*              38

The article isn’t entirely clear on what is included and what is excluded but from what I can gather it does including deaths associated with plant construction and the associated mining of construction materials. It isn’t including deaths from man made global warming. It isn’t including deaths from associated transportation (eg road accidents caused by coal trucks).

The “Chernobyl alone” figure isn’t from the article although it comes pretty close to the figure they quote. It is a figure that I calculated based on the article because I couldn’t quite follow the authors logic. My figure assumes that the 1986 Chernobyl accident will ultimately kill 4000 people (the extreme high end estimate cited in the article) and that the plant produced at full capacity from 1983 to 1986 (it actually operated from 1977 to 2000 but not at full capacity). During these years there were 4 generators in operation at the plant each with a capacity of 0.001 TW. Energy assumed is hence 0.004 TW x 3 x 365 x 24 hours = 105 TWh. And the death rate is 4000 / 105 = 38 deaths per TWh. Although we have not accounted for construction associated deaths the real death rate figure is almost certainly lower because 4000 deaths due to the melt down accident is an extreme estimate. Chernobyl is the only nuclear reactor in history to suffer an uncontained nuclear meltdown. Chernobyl continued to operate as a working power plant for 14 years after the accident.

40 thoughts on “Safety and Electricity production

  1. Probably one of the things that gets forgotten in such statistical debates is the number of lives saved by the availability of the power so generated. Without it we would be living in something akin to the late 19th or early 20th century.

    The real problem with power generation is morbid fascination the state has in getting involved with it. Without government involvement there is little doubt that power generation would look a whole lot different. Solar, wind, and bio-fuels, would be fringe obsessions without generous subsidies. It is possible that without bio-fuels hundreds of thousands of people who have been cast into famine through higher food prices caused by extra demand to run cars trendily, might be living a whole lot better.

    Two things really stand out in the death rate chart above.

    The first is the safety of nuclear, with the lowest death rate of the lot reinforces my argument in that the crazed fear mongering of the left prevents greater use of this source, under the Blight government up here we are not allowed to even explore for uranium, and:

    Capitalism is the safest producer of coal based power.

  2. Chernobyl is the only case in the world, ever, where people have actually been harmed or killed by a nuclear power plant. So, the overall worldwide death rate per TWh from nuclear energy is just the Chernobyl death toll divided by the total worldwide historical energy output from all nuclear power.

    Even if you assume that the death toll was far larger than most scientifically credible analyses suggest, the overall death rate from nuclear power per TWh still has very little overall sensitivity to the Chernobyl data, since Chernobyl was only one nuclear power plant, with a short lifetime, among many hundreds of others across the world.

    A question to take away and think about:
    To bring up the worldwide death rate per TWh from nuclear energy up to the point where it is equally as dangerous as wind or hydro, what actual number of Chernobyl deaths would be required?

  3. Luke – you’re right. However Jarrah is right to seek the correct data even if it doesn’t alter the conclusion. I’m still interested to know what figure the book he has read suggests.

  4. Sorry, Terje, I should have mentioned that! They reckon close to 1 million. From one review:

    “Drawing upon extensive data, the authors estimate the number of deaths worldwide due to Chernobyl fallout from 1986 through 2004 was 985,000, a number that has since increased.”

    Their main argument is that ‘official’ estimates basically ignored hundreds of studies on those involved in clean-up operations. I haven’t read the book, and couldn’t judge its epidemiological bona fides anyway, so I look forward to critiques/confirmations. I don’t take it as the last word by any means, but it’s a sobering claim from a reputable source.

    A good point from another review:
    “Any such treatment of Chernobyl health effects would have to somehow rigorously distinguish consequences of the accident from consequences of the general public health catastrophe that has engulfed Russia and some of the Soviet successor states in recent decades.”

    Luke, I agree, Chernobyl is not the metric with which to judge nuclear power. It’s a bogeyman story to scare children, not an argument against new reactors.

  5. Jarrah – if we were to accept that figure then the Chernobyl alone death rate rises to about 1000 per TWh. Or about four times worse than the average result for Coal in China. The credibility of the figure needs testing. However as we agree Chernobyl isn’t the benchmark for nuclear. It’s the historical worst case.

  6. p.s. Also if we accept that figure then I suppose the death rate for nuclear as a whole would rise to 1 per TWh. Still vastly better than for coal in the USA.

  7. TerjeP, to ‘believe’ the 1,000,000 deaths from Chernobyl figure, you have to (i) postulate a mechanism whereby deaths from radiation is dramatically INCREASED at low exposure levels, relative to a linear no threshold dose response (i.e. anti-hormesis), and (ii) then explain why people living in regions with naturally high levels of background radiation actually show fewer cancer deaths than those in areas with naturally low background radiation.

    As such, that figure can be ridiculed on both logical and empirical grounds. It’s nothing more than black magic and voodoo, and it is utterly disgraceful that some so-called scientists (who authored the NY Academy of Sciences sponsored article Jarrah cites above) propose this theory as even slightly plausible. It is nothing short of ludicrous.

  8. As I understand it, to come up with the figure of one million, they took anyone who lived vaguely close to Chernobyl and for however many years later died prematurely of cancer or some other illness, and assumed it was caused by the radiation.

    In truth 50 people were killed by the blast, and the only confirmed direct link to future illnesses was you 4,000 – 9,000 who got thyroid cancer.

  9. Yes thanks Barry. We need to get your insights more widely appreciated. You’re a great advocate and we need to clone you’re efforts and spread the news to a wider audience. There are plenty of people sympathetic to nuclear but still ignorant of the facts.

    I don’t mind however if we have criticism and questions along the lines offered by Jarrah if it means we learn something.

  10. Oh , don’t bother answering it, jarrah as i see from your earlier comments that you haven’t either.

    It seems interesting to me that you berate others for not reading this book while you haven’t yourself.

  11. I came on this today.

    Nearly twenty years after the events of April 1986, a panel of 100 experts from a variety of international agencies, including the World Health Organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Environment Programme, reported the conclusions of an extensive investigation (The Chernobyl Panel, September 2005). In this they give a figure for the number of deaths directly attributable to the accident. The total is 59: made up of 50 of the heroic recovery workers, who attempted to limit the effects of the disaster in the immediate aftermath; and 9 deaths from thyroid cancer, caused by the dispersal of radioactive iodine and a consequence of the vulnerability of children to this particular radio-isotope. The Panel also refer, somewhat speculatively, to ‘perhaps as many as 4,000 of the afflicted population in the region who might ultimately die as a consequence’.

    On the other hand, the panel noted that there had been no observed rise in the incidence of leukaemia (a blood cancer associated with radiation exposure) and no detectable decrease in fertility or increase in birth defects. Indeed they concluded that that the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident was ‘the mental health impact’. Residents of the region were said to view themselves as victims of a tragedy they poorly understand and are ‘still haunted by an unfounded anxiety that has prevented many from restarting their lives’.

  12. “you berate others for not reading this book while you haven’t yourself.”

    Wrongo, boyo. I berate others for jumping to conclusions when they haven’t read the book. I explicitly state that I haven’t read the book, and so can’t make any conclusions about it! See the difference?

  13. Jarrah, note that I wasn’t criticising you, it was the book you cited. Here’s a comment from some colleagues of mine in the US, who I regularly correspond with:

    I refer to the book very recently published by the New York Academy of Sciences “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” by A. Yablokov, V Nesterenko, and A Nesterenko. This reminded me that, being retired, I may not be as up to date on Chernobyl health effects as I thought. So I got on Google and checked to see what has been published in the past few years.

    At the 20 year period after the 1986 accident the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report that appears to be very carefully researched and prepared. It included input from experts in many organizations and countries. It was clearly designed to be the defninitive report on Chernobyl health effects. The conclusions were essentially the same as in the OECD ten year report and the UN fourteen year report, as summarized in my e mail of Monday, 4/26. The WHO report also estimated the possible additional deaths, based on the linear no-threshold (LNT) model, for two groups of people in the three countries, Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. For the 826,000 individuals in the most highly exposed groups (liquidators, evacuees, and residents in the most contaminated zones) they estimated up to 4,000 additional deaths. Remember some of these individuals, especially the liquidators, received massive doses of radiation. This is a 3-4% increase over the normal cancer death rate for this group. For the 5 million residents of areas that received doses slightly above background, they estimated up to 5,000 additional deaths. For the rest of Europe they state that the increased cancer deaths will be very small and undetectable.

    Now back to the book. Of the authors, Yablokov, is Russian and the other two authors are from Belarus. This book claims that 985,000 people have died worldwide from Chernobyl fallout as of 2004. It also claims that the radioactivity released from Chernobyl was 200 times greater than other estimates. The authors claim their results are based on about 5,000 reports, most in Slavic languages, never before available in English. It is important to note here that the WHO report specifically indicates in put from the governments of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. Presumably the experts in these three countries had access to the same reports referred to in the Yablokov, New York Academy of Sciences book.

    There are several other more recent Chernobyl health effect studies listed in Google. I only looked at them briefly. They were certainly not in the same league with the WHO study, and they were mostly from organizations with an agenda.

    Nobody has counted these deaths. The 4000 deaths are simply the result of the number of people exposed, the exposure levels (an estimate, only) using the LNT model. These deaths are premature deaths, which, in maybe the majority of the cases, are future deaths. I got the feeling the authors of the WHO report were careful to avoid critisizim that they were underestimating the deaths.

    In the Yablokov book it is noted that, of the 830,000 liquidators, between 112,000 and 125,000 had died by 2005. The vast majority (maybe all) of the liquidators were adult males. First, are these numbers correct, since they don’t agree with the numbers in the WHO report. Second, based on normal morality values, this seems like about what one would expect after 19 years. Further, the WHO reports states that there was a major breakdown in medical facilities, and a large increase in alcoholism and smoking, after the breakup of the Soviet Union. This makes it very difficult to observe any possible increased morality due to radiation.


    An additional comment: The 4,000- & 5,000-death numbers, based as they are on the discredited LNT model, have no relevance to the real world. The health physics community is preponderantly in agreement that LNT has no valid empirical foundation, and that there is much empirical evidence to the contrary.

    An official statement by the Health Physics Society says this:

    ” A large dose to a small number of people is not equivalent
    to a small dose to many people, even if the collective doses
    are the same. Thus, for populations in which almost all
    individuals are estimated to receive a lifetime dose of less
    than 10 rem above background, collective dose is a highly
    speculative and uncertain measure of risk and should not
    be used for the purpose of estimating population health risks.”

    Click to access risk_ps010-1.pdf

    Quoting from Nucleonics Week:

    The [French] Academy [of Medicine] “denounces”
    the use of the linear nonthreshold (LNT) theory to
    estimate the health effect of doses below a few
    milliSieverts, the order of magnitude of the variation
    in natural background radiation among French regions.
    It also condemns the use of the collective dose concept
    to estimate health effects, saying “these procedures
    have no scientific validity, even if they appear
    convenient for administrative reasons.” . . . The
    full Academy adopted the opinion in a unanimous
    vote Dec. 4 [2001].

    The credible literature puts the total Chernobyl death toll at less than 50. In sponsoring that nonsensical book, the New York Academy of Sciences has lost whatever scientific credibility it might once have had.

  14. I berate others for jumping to conclusions when they haven’t read the book. I explicitly state that I haven’t read the book, and so can’t make any conclusions about it! See the difference?

    And I berate you for criticizing others for not reading the while while you haven’t yourself. See the difference, boyo? I don’t.

    And you did draw a conclusion of sorts, by its cover no less. Here:

    I don’t take it as the last word by any means, but it’s a sobering claim from a reputable source.

    What would call that then, a “pre-conclusion” conclusion before you read the book, which therefore absolves you from the same standards you place on others 🙂

    The claim that a million people died as a result of the Soviet accident is as preposterous as someone claiming that no Jews were killed in the holocaust. It’s about as preposterous. I don’t have to read such a book to know how maliciously ridiculous those claims are. Do you?

  15. “Jarrah, note that I wasn’t criticising you, it was the book you cited. ”

    Barry, I wasn’t taking offence, merely seeking clarification.

    “Presumably the experts in these three countries had access to the same reports referred to in the Yablokov, New York Academy of Sciences book.”

    Presumptions are dangerous :-). But I get your point. To repeat, I am merely the messenger, I make no judgement on the NYAS claims. I simply wanted to inform Terje of recent research.

  16. “And I berate you for criticizing others for not reading the while while you haven’t yourself.”

    That’s because you’re a fairly stupid person – I didn’t criticise others for not reading the book. In fact, I didn’t criticise anyone at all. But I queried whether people were jumping to conclusions.

    “See the difference, boyo? I don’t.”

    Obviously. Because you’re not very bright.

    “What would call that then, a “pre-conclusion” conclusion before you read the book”

    I call it a cautious evaluation based on a hard-earned reputation (as alluded to by Barry Brook – “the New York Academy of Sciences has lost whatever scientific credibility it might once have had.”)

  17. Ok fine, you want to call it a “cautious evaluation”.

    Whatever you want to call it- call it chocolate fudge for all I care- that standard you apply on others doesn’t apply to you, right?

    You can judge a book by its cover but others can’t?

    Face facts, you were caught out making a dumb comment and like every single time you’re caught out it’s always the same with you.

    Man-up for a change and face up to facts. trust me, you’ll feel much better for it.

  18. “You can judge a book by its cover but others can’t?”

    No. I judge the source. Barry initially gave no grounds for his dismissal, and papachango the same. I asked them if perhaps they were allowing a logical fallacy to cloud their judgement. Barry, to his credit, responded with evidence and logic.

    You, on the other hand, don’t know what’s going on, as shown by every sentence you write.

    Face facts, JC – I can type rings around you with one hand tied behind my back.

  19. Yea, no doubt about it, jarrah, you’re very smart when it comes to covering your tracks and distorting things. You’re sure are smart at that sort of thing and both chips on those shoulders helps you keep balanced.

    However, let me ask you again, it’s okay for you to judge this book by its cover but others can’t make judgment calls about it contents because like like you they haven’t read it.

  20. Jarrah – I’m inclined to accept Barrys points but as I indicated earlier if we did accept the higher death toll for Chernobyl (ie 1 million) the numbers then show that nuclear power is on average a very safe technology. Much safer than the dominant conventional means of producing electricity. So I think that saying nuclear power is safe is a robust statement. It passes the obvious sensitivity test.

  21. “So I think that saying nuclear power is safe is a robust statement.”

    Yes. That is precisely the point I made at Quiggin’s, when I first raised the NYAS study – even when we increase the possible death toll by several orders of magnitude, it’s still not worthy of the status of a slam-dunk objection to nuclear forever more, like Alice believes it is.

    “it’s okay for you to judge this book by its cover”

    I repeat – I specifically said I DON’T judge the book. Can’t you read?

    “but others can’t make judgment calls about it contents”

    What is being judged, and the basis for it, matters. I said the SOURCE was reputable, critics attacked the CLAIMS. Their criticisms were couched in terms that suggested they didn’t like the claims because they thought they were implausible – suggestive of a logical fallacy. Barry showed that it wasn’t the case for him, great. Why are you tilting at windmills?

  22. I got booted from Quiggins blog because I insisted that climategate reveiled academic impropriety. He is well mannered but the regulatory burden associated with his blog is getting excessive. You can’t discuss climate science, he is banning discussion of nuclear power and he says I’m systematically promoting lies simply because I occasionally link to material he finds contentious. He hasn’t yet banned discussion of a carbon tax but says if you discuss it you’re only doing so to destroy the ETS. Now he is in essence banning criticism of academic behaviour associated with climategate. He then gives nutters free rein to peddle leftist economic stupidity. I’m quite disappointed in the direction he is headed.

  23. You’re right, Terje, he has been making some bad decisions recently. I took him to task for losing his rag at you regarding climategate. But what I really can’t believe is his toleration of Alice, who is denser than lead, couldn’t construct a rational argument if she tried, has a seriously deficient knowledge of history, and is abusive without provocation.

  24. Whereas Jarrah is all sweetness and light, of course. I remember how abusive you got in our ‘arguments’, about climate, as I recall.

  25. Nuke, “without provocation” is the key part. Some blogs, like this one, tolerate insults etc, and I’ll join in if provoked. But I don’t start the exchanges, and I challenge you to prove me wrong.

  26. I got booted from Quiggins blog because I insisted that climategate reveiled academic impropriety.

    Yeah but that was disgraceful censorship by Quiggan. He tolerates Alice who takes every opportunity to take cheap shots yet pulls you up on some trivial matter.

    As to the nuclear power debate, I was going to enter into that but intuition told me it was a lost cause. Just every now and then intuition works!

  27. nuke:

    He’s well balanced because he has a chip on each shoulder and gets quite hostile if you present a weakness in his argument, which is something he’s unable to psychologically accept, such as his double standards that were on display here.

    He berates other people for not reading a book that ranks right up there with holocaust denial but sees nothing wrong with the fact that he hasn’t read it himself despite highlighting its arguments. All sweetness and and light of course.

  28. Nuke, “without provocation” is the key part. Some blogs, like this one, tolerate insults etc, and I’ll join in if provoked. But I don’t start the exchanges, and I challenge you to prove me wrong.

    Fail. You were abusive on this thread.

    Provoked? You mean like someone running a truck though your silly assertions? LOl. Yea, all sweetness.

  29. Jarrah, old sparring buddy, I was thinking, for one example, of the Medieval warming trend, which you refused to see at the time, or to acknowledge as having happened. I think I also tried raising the issue of bias in scientists, which has since been highlighted by Climategate, and the exaggeration over the glaciers melting in the himalayas (2035 versus 2350). I also recall you abusing me for reading “The Australian”, a paper you disliked.

  30. “a book that ranks right up there with holocaust denial”

    You’re a riot, JC.

    “I was thinking, for one example, of [list that includes zero unprovoked abuse]”

    Oh, well. I suppose you did try, at least.

  31. Jarrah, you might not remember them, but I recall lots of abuse and vilification in your comments to me regarding those issues that I mentioned. And I’ll bet you’re still not reading “The Australian”.

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