In the transition to a renewable future we will still need to generate more power for electric planes, trains and automobiles. Vegetables have killed more people than nuclear power and it should be part of our future base load energy mix rather than coal. Let me explain.
While it goes against what most instinctively believe, nuclear energy is still the safest and most reliable major energy source we have today. Only three major accidents: Three Mile Island, Fukushima and Chernobyl, have occurred across 17,000 cumulative years of commercial nuclear power generation in 33 countries.
Many might argue that it is not the number of nuclear catastrophes, but the size and impact of them that matters. The meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in the 70s resulted in no deaths or significant longer-term health effects. Fukushima has claimed one life in the 8 years since it occurred; immediate radiation levels were deemed to be low and radiation levels in seawater that reached North America was not found to be harmful. In fact, it was the chaotic evacuation of approximately 100,000 individuals from their homes that led to many deaths from stress and trauma. Now a tourist attraction and oasis for diverse wildlife and forest, the Chernobyl disaster was far more costly – it has been estimated that it will prematurely claim 4,000 lives.
In comparison, vegetables arguably present a far wider danger to the public. In 2011, the year of the Fukushima disaster, an outbreak of Listeria monocytogenes was linked to cantaloupes grown on a farm in Colorado. It caused illnesses in 28 US states, hospitalising 143 people and killing 33. An E. coli outbreak in Germany from locally grown sprouts resulted in more than 600 people being treated in intensive care and more than 30 deaths. A Salmonella outbreak linked to cucumbers from Mexico affected 40 US states, hospitalized 204 people, and caused 4 deaths. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States estimates that foodborne illnesses cause millions of illnesses, over 125,000 hospitalisations, and 3,000 deaths each year.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the German government announced plans to close all nuclear power plants by 2022. Yet coal, on which the country depends for 38% of its power production, has been estimated to cause hundreds of thousands of premature deaths globally every year. Approximately 25 deaths (from related air pollution) per terawatt-hour of energy production to be exact. Nuclear accounts for 0.07.
Nuclear generators have learnt from past mistakes and accidents should increasingly be a thing of the past. It should form part of our power solutions until we can adequately scale up and transition to large scale renewables. Unlike coal and its CO2 emissions, we know where nuclear waste is and can manage it.
Let’s get busy repairing the future.