North American wolves were hunted to near-extinction because they preyed on livestock. In recent years, after decades of recovery efforts, wolves have again become plentiful enough in some areas that predation is again a concern – to stave off ranchers’ demands to hunt wolves in order to reduce the numbers of lost livestock, meat is sometimes spiked with mild toxins so that wolves eating the meat will become nauseated and will lose interest in preying on farm animals. If a wolf becomes violently ill after eating mutton then it will avoid preying on sheep. This aversion effect is not unique to predators, incidentally – I had an unfortunate run-in with sake my first time in Japan in 1986 (I made the mistake of going out with an alcoholic shipmate) and I was unable to bring myself to drink sake again until I went to Japan this last April – a lapse of a quarter century. In fact, the aversion response is common enough that it even has a name – the Garcia effect.
At the moment much of the world seems to be suffering from the Garcia effect in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident. Germany and Switzerland have both decided to put a halt to their nuclear power programs, America’s nuclear renaissance seems to have slowed somewhat, and Japan is trying to figure out how to substitute alternative energy sources for nuclear power – not to mention other nations (Austria, Spain, Taiwan, Mexico, and Belgium) that have announced they will either phase out nuclear power altogether or to halt construction of new reactors. It is understandable that the world might feel an aversion to nuclear power at the moment, just as I felt an aversion to sake after my one unfortunate experience. The problem is that nuclear power plants take decades to plan and build. My sake aversion was overcome during the course of a meal with my Japanese hosts but it can take a few decades to design, license, and build a new nuclear power plant. Given the stakes – and the length of time it takes to construct a nuclear reactor – it might make sense to ask if our current nuclear power aversion is well-founded.
The fact is that nuclear power is complex, but it is no more dangerous than is any other form of energy. In fact, looking at the number of deaths per megawatt of energy produced, solar power is far and away the most dangerous form of energy – but this statistic is somewhat skewed because of the large number of people who fall off of the roof installing solar collectors and because solar energy is so small a part of our energy mix. But the fact remains that on a routine basis (i.e. under normal operation) nuclear energy – including mining, transportation, and operation – is less deadly than many other forms of energy generation. Data summarized by the International Atomic Energy Agency makes it clear that nuclear energy is less deadly (in terms of annual fatalities per gigawatt year of energy produced) than are coal, oil, gas, hydroelectric, or solar energy. This should be obvious to anyone who follows the news of coal mining disasters in the United States and China, and it doesn’t even start to address deaths due to air pollution from fossil fuel-burning power plants. Of course the IAEA can be accused of cooking their statistics to make nuclear energy look safer than it really is, not to mention the fact that accidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl raise questions about the impact of reactor accidents. But the fact is that nuclear energy is neither the least nor the most dangerous form of energy available.
Similarly, nuclear energy is not the only form of energy to release radioactivity into the environment. Coal, due to the geochemistry of uranium, contains radioactivity that is released when it is burned. Not only that, but the geologic conditions under which petroleum and natural gas formed mean that these deposits also contain radioactivity – bringing these fossil fuels to the surface releases radioactivity into the environment. Incidentally, geothermal energy production also produces radioactive liquids and generates radioactive byproducts (the Department of Energy has published a number of documents describing the amount of natural radioactivity found in various fossil fuels, many of which are available as PDF downloads). Without going into all of the details it is safe to say that nuclear energy releases more radioactivity into the environment than do some forms of energy production (e.g. solar or tidal) but causes less radiation dose to the public per gigawatt hour of energy produced than do coal, natural gas, or petroleum-burning.
Of course this doesn’t get into the accidents, but even here nuclear energy is not uniquely dangerous. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 9000 people might die of radiation-induced cancer as a result of the Chernobyl accident over a period of 50 years, but the same report acknowledges that, as of its 2006 publication date, fewer than 100 deaths can be attributed to the accident. Fukushima released only about 10-20% of the total amount of radioactivity released by Chernobyl – it is reasonable to assume that the total radiation dose to the population from the Fukushima accident was no more than 10-20% of the dose to the Ukrainian and Belorussian populations. This is not to suggest that any deaths that come about as a result of these accidents are acceptable – only to note that nuclear energy is no more dangerous than any other form of energy production.
When we put all of this together it would seem that nuclear energy is neither without risk nor extraordinarily dangerous. That being the case, it could be that the knee-jerk nuclear aversion experienced by so many nations might be premature and ill-advised.
Dr Y is a certified health physicist, trained in nuclear power plant design and operations, with experience in nuclear power, environmental science, and planning for radiological and nuclear emergencies. He has 30 years of experience in the areas of nuclear and radiation safety.