In a recent post, I wrote about my excitement over a major engineering advance in nuclear power generation. In the ensuing discussion, chopdeli berated me for giving short-shrift to the downsides of nuclear power. Fair enough. As a long-time nuclear power enthusiasts, I’m not surprised I tend to overlook the problems. I will partly address them in this post.
As I see it, there have been three major downsides to nuclear power plants. First, the cost, especially for coal-rich America. This barrier has been overcome, at least with new small scale plants. The other problems are safety and, of course, waste issues. I’ll cover safety in this post, since I know a bit more about it. Nuclear waste is a serious problem and concerns about it are certainly valid. As I hope to show, they are certainly more valid than concerns about nuclear plant safety.
The fears over nuclear power plant safety are significantly overblown, in my opinion. So overblown, in fact, that I characterized the fears as ‘irrational’ in one of my comments, much to chopdeli’s ire. Really, I think lack of information, not irrationality is to blame.
Let’s look at some numbers.The bottom half of the graph at the beginning of this post gives the number of active nuclear power plants world wide per annum. The data underlying this graph is from the International Atomic Energy Agency. From this graph, I’ve estimated the total number of active plant-years to be about 14,000 world wide. In that entire history there has been one partial meltdown, Three Mile Island, and one complete meltdown, Chernobyl. That puts the odds of meltdown per plant per year worldwide to be 1 in 7000. Since there were exactly zero deaths and zero injuries resulting from the Three Mile Island incident, the odds of being injured in such a meltdown are 1 in 14,000.
This is, of course assuming that safety standards are uniform across all countries and through time. Indeed they are not. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission published a comprehensive study in 1975 found the odds of a meltdown in American plants to be 1 in 20,000 (a PDF copy of the report can be found here). For early deaths as a result of a US plant meltdown, the more recent (1991) NUREG-1150 puts the odds at 1 in 50 million per plant per year. It is clear that location and time are significant in nuclear power safety with Western and more recent plants being safer.
Compare these odds to the odds of dying from being other dangers. Take, for instance, the odds of being struck and killed by a motor vehicle as a pedestrian: about 1 in 50 thousand per year. This means that if you do happen to live near a nuclear power plant, your odds of dying from that is one thousand times less than dying an early death due to a meltdown. If all of us are willing to take that risk and allow people to increase carbon emissions by driving vehicles, certainly we can expect some of us to take the significantly lower risk of nuclear power plants to reduce carbon emissions. I certainly am. I’m not a sufferer of NIMBY syndrome either. I’d welcome a nuclear power plant in my region (I live about 100 miles away from two of them already, but would welcome more, closer).