“Oh, Daddy, I’ve had such a dream;
I dreamt that I saw the pit all afire,
And men struggled hard for their lives;
The scene it then changed, and the top of the mine
Was surrounded by sweethearts and wives.”
I attended an interesting talk this past weekend given by University of Pennsylvania Professor of Astrophysics, Ken Lande. He made an interesting point during the course of his talk on the “post-fossil fuel era.” While his ultimate point was that a decentralized energy source such as wind or solar would be far better, safer, and more secure for us, he pointed out an interesting comparison between two other, far more prevalent, energy sources in use today.
After discussing why the Three Mile Island incident and the Chernobyl disaster were different and actually demonstrate why modern nuclear power is relatively safe from a technology and protocol standpoint, he pointed out that it would be interesting to compare the number of deaths caused by nuclear power, waste, and accidents to the number of deaths caused by coal mining accidents. He suggested that the successful safety record of nuclear power plants over the 54 years they’ve been in operation indicates that nuclear power is far safer than coal power, particularly for those who actually work with it.
I’d love to see some hard numbers on this, but that may be impossible, as the fallout from the Chernobyl accident is not easy to calculate with any real accuracy. Air currents carried particles around the globe, making exact figures impossible. However, it’s interesting to note that the Soviet policy of not treating their citizens with preventative injections, to avoid panic, lead to widespread thyroid cancer and deaths. These deaths were preventable through simple policy initiatives; policies which were put in place elsewhere to great effect.
What struck me most was that a great deal of nuclear power’s danger comes from bad policies and fear (also related to the handling of radioactive waste), not necessarily from the process itself, which is well understood and controllable, as demonstrated by over half a century with so few accidents.
Anyway, something to keep in mind when we talk about our current big energy sources, coal and nuclear power. I’d also like to point out here that I am not a booster for nuclear power, simply a person gathering information. Solar and wind are the way to go.