The Pit All Afire

A coal mine, seen silhouetted on the horizon at sunset, with clouds in the sky.

“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.”

Don’t Go Down the Mine Daddy

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.

2 replies on “The Pit All Afire”

  1. If there are measurement problems from nuclear power, there are surely similar problems from coal. E.g., measuring all the non-miners who’ve died from inhalation problems. Without knowing anything about the specific issue, it seems to me that the measurement problems here are about as severe as measuring deaths from secondhand smoke.

    Our friend #7buslady recommended that I read Power To Save The World. I don’t think she’s read it yet, but it came highly rated.

  2. So I still haven’t read PtStW yet, but if I like it I’ll be sure to let you both know. Also, I think we do know a lot about just how dangerous coal is. I believe the NYT (?) had a statistic a few months ago that on the order of 25,000 (non coal mining) Americans die every year because of coal-related or -exacerbated respiratory problems.

    I’m so glad that the professor made the distinction between TMI and Chernobyl. I don’t think that most folks know that there is huge difference between the two, and that the Chernobyl accident was both caused and then made worse by bad Soviet-era policies that would never fly here in the US.

    And while I am a big supporter of nuclear power, I don’t think that it is the complete answer. I think we’ll always need large energy sources like nuclear power plants for big power draws like industry or infrastructure that need consistent supply, but I think spreading solar and wind also holds a lot of promise.

    Feel free to drop me a line if you ever have any nuclear related questions. I probably won’t answer any until my thesis is finished this semester, but I’ll reply eventually :).

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