Atom, the most dangerous energy source. Or is it?

As the days go by…

As we are marching forward, equipped with the newest technological gadgets and clothed with imported from far away lands garments, somewhere in between all the informational avalanche we are experiencing everyday, voices of worry regarding climate change are peeking onto us. These voices are not loud, nor frequent. They appear from time to time, around any influential tragedy happening: forests burning in Brazil, massive floods destroying villages in Indonesia, droughts severely affecting the olive oil production, and so on. 

These moments are the very rare instances, when climate scientists have the opportunity to speak to the wider public – to finally be heard. Deep down we all know that the problem of air pollution should be dealt with. We all agree that some steps should be undertaken – by governments, by corporations and by us, the individuals. We try to limit the amount of plastic bags being carried around, we drink tap water, some of us consume less meat. These are all steps in the right direction, the representation of changing attitude and the sustainable way of thinking. 

But these are just a few drops in the whole ocean of problems. This ocean is not only vast in size, but also full of various trenches, making it almost impossible to dry out. The Mariana Trench of such problems is the energy. Our society is organized around electricity. We begin our days hearing the alarm clock that comes from our technologically advanced smartphones, which are powered by electricity. We go to take a shower, enjoying the warm water stream hitting our bodies, which is transported there by a water pump, working endlessly in the building and consuming megawatts of energy. We use all sorts of hygienic products, from soaps, through specialized shampoos to toothpastes. While performing this morning routine, we do not stop and wonder: how did these products get here? None of that would be possible, if it were not for electricity-powered factories, means of transport, or even the software necessary for all the logistics.

Our whole lives are powered by electricity.

Light my bulb!

Where does all this power come from? Even children in kindergarten would be able to answer this question: “from the power plant!” – you could hear the thin and enthusiastic voices screaming. 
There are various ways of categorizing energy sources, the most fundamental one is: renewable and non-renewable. With renewables it is easy. They are commonly considered as the good and healthy approach. After all, gaining energy from wind, sun or water is not contributing to the growing air pollution, and these sources are not just going to disappear one day. On the contrary, we have this internal hunch that tells us that non-renewable energy is not the way to go in the long run. And it is correct, in the majority, because this group is made up entirely of fuel-based sources, such as coal, gas or oil. But do not be so quick with your judgement just yet, as this group contains also uranium and deuter, which are used for nuclear energy.

Source: own, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019

Let’s perform some quick math on the stats given above. Coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear all account for the non-renewable sources, in other words – fuel-based. Twenty seven plus twenty four… Ah, darn it! Eighty nine percent (89%)!

So, in your hypothetical house, 9 out of every 10 light bulbs are being powered up by the conventional (non-renewable) sources of energy. Of those, 8 are receiving the “dirty energy” – it is a common name for the highly polluting methods of burning fossil-fuels, in order to produce electricity. Why only 8, if just moments before we mentioned the number 9? Not all fuel-based methods of producing energy are damaging the environment. Therefore, not all of them should be accounted for as “dirty ones”. Nuclear energy, despite the fact it technically is powered by fuels, does not quite fit this category.

Atom goes ka-boom!

Only, it doesn’t. But I do not intend to familiarize you with the technology behind, reactions taking place in the process, nor the specifics of how a nuclear plant functions. Our brains and the cognitive processes according to which they are wired, are designed in such a way, to prioritize the sudden and clearly visible threats. Therefore, we tend to associate rare, but dramatic events as the most dangerous ones. Not based on logic and deep analytics, but because of the quick and biased calculations done by our brains. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, based on years of his research, has come up with the framework describing how we think: quickly, intuitive and biased, as well as, slowly, calculated and logically. Just to give you a small taste of what these systems are about, let me ask you to solve two mathematical tasks. First: how much is 2×2? Got it? How much energy did you have to dedicate for this equation? I am pretty confident with the guess that almost none – the answer was right there, quickly retrieved from your memory. That is the system one in action – fast and intuitive. Now, how much is 13×17? Ahh, not so easy, huh? Now you have to slow down, focus deeply and make complicated calculations in your head. It is not pleasant nor enjoyable. This is system two, the slow and heavy machinery for difficult tasks.  In his book titled “Thinking fast and slow”, Kahneman elaborates more on the subject.

The phenomenon of either fast or slow thinking affects us all, especially in terms of statistical thinking. For this reason, when someone asks “what is the most dangerous means of transport?”, the intuitive answer is: plane. Why? Because when a plane crashes, not only do all the passengers die, but also the media is talking about it. It creates the image, where planes are deadly and explosive death machines, just waiting to crash. This image is memorised and stored in our brains, later on influencing the way we perceive the subject. When asked, we do not take time to analyze data, no – instead, we recollect the intuitive answers, based on emotions, stereotypes and available knowledge. The fast-thinking system one is in control here, leading us to the delusional answer. In reality, planes – due to the regulations, systematic technical check ups and highly trained personnel – are the safest option to travel. Equally biased logic applies to nuclear energy, which due to rare occurrences of dangerous accidents, is considered as the deadliest source of power.

At this point I believe it is important to specify that Chernobyl was indeed a tragic event. Such a catastrophe should not have happened and I am not trying to lessen it. There have been reported deaths – either directly, due to the event, or indirectly, due to the radiation. Different analyses present different values on how many people have actually suffered the consequences of the explosion. However, what is crucial to notice here, is the fact that Chernobyl – in all its horrors – was an individual event. A disaster on such a scale has happened only once in history, and it was not even the fault of the reactor, but a human error. It has truly had an impact on our imagination, and this catastrophic vision has for sure been strengthened by shows like ‘Chernobyl’. How dangerous is it actually, then?

It’s the silent ones

Let’s try to get a hold of the quick-for-the-judgment system one, responsible for the intuitive and biased answers. Instead, how about we stop and think, look into the available data and compare the findings? Let’s involve the system two – analytical and slow with judgments.

The iconic example of nuclear dangers. The tragedy that has made a whole area go hazardous and is to this day still experiencing the consequences of mystical radiation. I do not want to get into a detailed analysis on why this accident became what it is, so allow me to skip the explanation. Let’s just look at the data. According to the official data, the death toll of Chernobyl is 31. Period. 31 people have died in total due to the accident. But what about the post-effects? The radiation sickness, cancers? You are correct, but here the subject gets complicated. It is difficult to establish how many lives have been actually affected by it. But you know what, let’s take the most pessimistic one! It is the estimate done by European Green Party, and according to it, the total death toll of Chernobyl is 60,000. Just for a perspective on how divergent the numbers are, WHO proposes the number of only 4,000.

At this point I believe it is important to mention that despite the Chernobyl district – with the city of Pripyat – being completely abandoned and considered as a “no go zone”, the nuclear power station had been operating until the closure of the last reactor in 2000. Despite the common myth, it is not a life threatening area and people would show up to work there on a regular basis.

The Japanese nuclear plant located in Fukushima Dashi is the second nuclear outpost which gained negative publicity due to the tragic events of 2011. Despite the catastrophic scale of those incidents, affecting the whole of Japan, Fukushima nuclear power plant had sustained the incoming wave surprisingly well. Due to the better technology this institution was operating with, as well as the proper security measures undertaken, the official death toll of that accident is 573. The important factor to notice here is that the area was under the influence of a catastrophic tsunami wave, which hit the coast of Japan. The number of deaths was therefore not due to the effects of radiation, but rather the stress evoked by the whole incident. The estimates of how many people might suffer the long term consequences of radiation caused by the Fukushima accident, vary from 0 to 1,000.

The scale of the tsunami wave hitting the coast of Japan near Fukushima.

If I were to ask you what are the potential dangers of using the renewable sources of energy, what would be your idea? Can you spot anything lifethreathening in using solar panels, wind turbines or other technologies exploiting the natural processes? And following that hunch, in majority, you would be correct. It is a fact that most deaths associated with the renewables were caused by construction and maintenance accidents. Unfortunately, these technologies account for just a fraction of the world’s electricity production. However, this group has its little secrets as well – hydropower.

Hydropower is basically a way to tame the destructive forces of water and gravity. Usually, it is in the form of a dam, where the falling water is powering up turbines, which in result create electricity. Keeping billions of cubic meters of water has its dangers, however. Because the same water which when under control is your ally, can easily turn into the biggest opponent. China has, unfortunately, experienced what it means in reality. In 1975, the Banqiao hydroelectric dam had suffered a failure, with truly catastrophic consequences. Just imagine that 15 billions cubic meters of water are literally breaking free, causing massive floods. Not only floods, but also a chain reaction, in which the kilometers-wide waves are subsequently destroying other dams lying on the way. Countless communities and thousands of square kilometers of countryside had been literally covered by building-tall waves, destroying everything on the way. Just this single accident is already estimated to have caused from 85,000 to 245,000 fatalities.

Aftermath of the Banqiao disaster.

Conventional power plants – which account for 80% of world’s production – are, in a way, working similar to hydro plants. Just like water falling from a higher elevation powers up a turbine, here the steam is doing basically the same job. However, in order to obtain the hot steam, one must heat up the water. To do so, the process of combustion needs to happen – which is basically burning up the fossil fuels. In consequence – except from the heat – plenty of various substances are being released to the air: gases like ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide. These gases do not only sound bad, but being breathed-in regularly, may cause some chronic disorders, such as asthma and other respiratory diseases. Apart from this, burning fossil fuels emits to the atmosphere dangerous particles – a mixture of solid and liquid droplets of poisonous substances. These particles are tiny enough to find their way to the human’s respiratory system, and eventually – lungs. Fossil fuels-related air pollution is the number one cause of premature deaths related to the environment.

Just how many? According to the WHO, it accounts for 29% of all cases of lung cancer, 17% of deaths from acute lower respiratory infection, 24% from stroke, 25% from ischaemic heart disease and 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. All in all, it adds up to 4 million deaths per year. Every year. Just for a perspective – at the time of writing this article (February 2021), the number of COVID related deaths stands at 2,4 million. Collectively, air pollution from fossil fuels is estimated to have killed around 100 million people in the past 50 years.

Let’s be fair

When comparing the statistics of any phenomenon, what is important to pay attention to is the scale – the proportions. We can present the gross numbers of fatalities, but it makes little sense to compare one source to another, given the different percentage share of world’s energy production made by each of them. It seems reasonable that if conventional sources provide 80% of energy, they also cause the most deaths. In rescue comes a very intriguing analysis done by Our World Data, where they took a specific unit and compared the amounts of deaths needed for producing this specific amount of energy. The unit is 1 TWh – an enormous amount of energy, equal to the annual consumption of 27,000 EU citizens.

So, in order to produce this amount of energy, how many people die? Coal causes 25 deaths, oil causes 18 and natural gas 3. Renewable energy causes one death every few decades. And nuclear? In the worst case, nuclear energy would cause one death every 14 years.

What are the safest sources of energy?

Source: OurWorldData,

The death-rate in this comparison, includes the fatalities of both the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents.

As clearly seen above, even if standardised, the fossil-based sources of energy are the most fatal ones. Not only because they are the direct sources of it, but because they contribute to the catastrophic process of air pollution and in consequence – to climate change.

Why can’t we see this?

There is one significant problem when it comes to estimating the dangers of air pollution – it is a slow and graduate process. It does not happen overnight, giving us a clear evidence of the change – unlike the Chernobyl or Banqiao accidents, where within hours you could see the scale of it. Air pollution is a little bit like your hair growing – a constant process but distributed over big chunks of time, ergo – barely visible. Here, the faulty system one makes the quick judgment. It is therefore easy to come to the conclusion that since we cannot see the direct effects of it, there is no real threat. Unfortunately, there is. And it is a big one.

Atom, come back. Populism, go away

At the first sight it might seem that the atom is not the optimal source of energy – after all, renewables outbeat it in every statistic. Here, system one comes striking again. The quick judgment comes to mind, because just seconds ago you could have seen graphs showing how little deaths are caused by the renewable sources, especially like Solar and Wind. But it is not as easy as it seems. Non-conventional sources, unfortunately, come with enormous limitations due to the technology and infrastructure. They are simply dependent on outside conditions too much, and are extremely unlikely to be able to sustain World’s energy needs – in a great simplification.

Nuclear energy has two main faults – the opinion and the apparent problem of nuclear wastes. However, even the latter has already been solved down, and does not cause such a huge inconvenience and danger, as it might seem.

Unfortunately, despite its advantages and only apparent dangers – more and more nuclear power plants are being shut down, or the plans to establish them cancelled out. Germany being the leader in this field. This country, associated with rationality and efficiency, has decided to shut down 11 of its 17 nuclear facilities, and is planning to shut down the remaining ones until 2022. These decisions are the consequences of populism which has affected the German Green Party. The populism that believes in the catastrophic consequences of having an operating nuclear facility. The populism that prefers and feels more comfortable with using coal power plants – the ones that attribute the most to air pollution and climate change. A 2019 analysis concluded that as a consequence, the nuclear phaseout has led to 1,100 avoidable deaths per year in Germany, due to the increased air pollution in the years after 2010.

One study even found that nuclear energy actually saved two million lives between 1971 and 2009 by displacing fossil fuels from the global energy mix.

Italy is the only G8 country without its own nuclear power plants, having closed its last reactors in 1990 – as a consequence of the Chernobyl disaster. In 2008, government policy towards nuclear changed and a substantial new nuclear build program was planned. However, in a June 2011 referendum the 2009 legislation setting up arrangements to generate 25% of the country’s electricity from nuclear power by 2030 was rejected.

It is high time to change our perception of nuclear power.

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