Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The "Deathprint" of energy sources

Seems kind of odd that the one of the most vilified energy sources has the smallest "deathprint" or mortality rate than all of the other sources of power. Can you guess which source of power that is?

Nuclear.

Even after Chernobyl and Fukishima, nuclear still has a smaller deathprint than every other power source, even solar. But you wouldn't know it if you followed the histrionic sermons of Dr. Helen Caldicott or the mainstream press. Chernobyl is one of the most thoroughly studied nuclear disasters in history, yet peer reviewed studies of the event put the maximum death toll at 43 people. Total "deathprint" is about 90 people for the entire history of nuclear power. Forbes has put together a nice article and table on the subject of deaths in the energy industry. Here is the table:

Energy Source               Mortality Rate (deaths/trillionkWhr)

Coal – global average           170,000    (50% global electricity)

Coal – China                         280,000   (75% China’s electricity)

Coal – U.S.                              15,000    (44% U.S. electricity)

Oil                                            36,000    (36% of energy, 8% of electricity)

Natural Gas                                4,000    (20% global electricity)

Biofuel/Biomass                       24,000    (21% global energy)

Solar (rooftop)                                440    (< 1% global electricity)

Wind                                               150    (~ 1% global electricity)

Hydro – global average                1,400    (15% global electricity)

Nuclear – global average                   90    (17%  global electricity w/Chern&Fukush)

Everything involving carbon, even biomass, has a very high mortality rate. Yet, given the very low mortality rate of the nuclear industry, nuclear has a much higher regulatory burden and the results show.

Carbon fuel interests have deep pockets and use that money to fend off regulators. We saw that at Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig that caught fire and caused one of the largest oil spills in history, with deaths of at least 11 people.

There is more to the story, though. The environmental damage from carbon is starting to hit closer to home. On a monthly basis, we are seeing headlines of small disasters around the US. Examples include a refinery explosion in Torrance, California that deposited white silica ash over neighbors near the plant. We also learned of a CSX oil train derailing, catching fire and dumping oil into a nearby river. No one died in either accident, but toxins were released into the air.

No one disputes that nuclear accidents have happened, but few will be able to say that nuclear accidents happen as frequently, and do nearly as much environmental damage as carbon fuels do. From coal ash spills to oil spills to natural gas explosions, nuclear energy doesn't even hold a candle to carbon. The reason for this is containment.

In the vast majority of nuclear reactors, there is a very tight regulatory procedure in place. Waste is very dense because the energy density of nuclear energy is very high - nuclear has an energy density 1 million times that of the carbon-hydrogen bond. That means the waste can be stored in a very small volume of space compared to carbon fuels. Carbon fuels are everywhere and as liquids and gases, they are very hard to contain. Unfortunately, the indirect deathprint from all these spills and releases may never be fully known. Months or years after carbon fuel accidents, people will still feel the effects of a refinery blast or oil spill into a river, but who will count from there?

Nuclear is simply a better alternative to oil on the basis of containment and energy density alone. It's far easier to manage, has a stricter regulatory regime and has fewer accidents by a mile than oil, coal or natural gas. But they don't even get a pass compared to carbon. Perhaps we need to consider nuclear power as a way to displace and finally discard carbon until renewables can catch up. At least then, we can put more focus on preventing accidents rather than cleaning up after them.
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