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May 21, 2005
How Safe Is Nuclear Energy?
Hat tip to Tim Worstall for keeping the nuclear-energy ball in the air. His latest link is to an article at business.telegraph, which includes this discussion of safety issues (which was one of the central themes of discussion in an earlier Becker-Posner blog on the topic):
The nuclear industry sees a national debate looming and the anti-nuclear movement is gearing up for the fight...
Greenpeace has long been among the most prominent opponents of nuclear power and remains implacably opposed to the notion that it could be good for the environment...
"The primary reason we oppose nuclear power is the nature of reactors, which pose risks from major accidents and produce nuclear materials and waste we don't have anything to do with," she said. "Although nuclear is a lot less CO2 polluting than coal, it is not as CO2 efficient as the industry likes to give the impression of being."
Greenpeace's worries are worth addressing, given they reflect common fears about nuclear power and that the pressure group has won the propaganda war for public opinion. Safety is acknowledged to be the biggest concern. The problem is that even though the likelihood of a major accident is extremely low, we really don't know how severe the consequences could be.
The article then goes on to provide a welcome, and important, bit of perspective.
The 1986 blast at Chernobyl - from a combination of poor design, sloppy construction and negligent maintenance - was the probably the worst accident imaginable at a nuclear plant. About 45 people died as a result of the explosion but the 1988 Piper Alpha fire claimed 167 lives on the North Sea oil rig, and not one person was lost in America's Three Mile Island reactor leak.
Greenpeace says it would expect 30,000 deaths over a 30-50 year period from Chernobyl, including many who contracted thyroid cancer as children. Yet, an independent report estimates that the increased chance of cancer in the affected area is 0.1pc over 40 years. If the latter figure is correct, the number of people who have been killed by nuclear power is tiny compared with deaths in other parts of the power industry.
In British coal mines fatality rates still run at 11 a year per 100,000 employees and show no sign of falling. In Russia, which exports coal to the UK, the death rate is more than twice Britain's. All heavy industries kill people and it is not clear that modern reactors are particularly lethal.
Nuclear waste has been stored without incident in Britain since the 1950s. Not one person is known to have died from exposure to it and, while the emissions will last thousands of years, most is less radioactive than Cornish rocks.
Greenpeace's argument on carbon dioxide emissions may be true, but is misleading. Emissions are created when plants are built, like any power project (including wind turbines).
Once up and running, nuclear plants produce no waste gases, barring those from ships transporting the uranium from Australia or the cars used by employees to get to work.
The present pollution savings from nuclear are equivalent to removing three-quarters of the UK's cars from the roads.
That number, if correct, is stunning. But is a nuclear push economically viable?
With Britain's electricity supply about to enter a long decline, nuclear, it would seem, is the optimum solution, being safe, efficient and relatively clean. Yet even if the political problems can be overcome, financial hurdles remain. Analysts warn that the plants' lives are so long - 50 years - that the risks of building are too great for individual companies.
A recent study by investment bank UBS calculated that nuclear electricity is cheaper than gas as long as oil is above $28 a barrel. (Natural gas prices are closely correlated to the price of oil.) With Brent crude trading close to $50, this makes nuclear highly attractive but nobody knows what the price of oil will be in a year's time, let alone 30 years.
The UBS study goes on to recommend government subsidies, which I'm sure will begin to raise the alarm bells for some (although this is a pretty standard issue in the economics of public utilities).
In any event, this all seems of first-order importance to me, and the debate ought to proceed sooner rather than later.
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Safe Nuclear, Deadly Conventional Sources of Energy
"Nuclear lobby gathers steam but can expect severe reaction," Telegraph, 21 May 2005, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/money/main.jhtml;sessionid=GW3FEXENGK2NPQFIQMGSM5OAVCBQWJVC?xml=/money/2005/05/21/ccnuc21.xml&menuId=242&sSheet=/money/2005/05/21/ixcoms.ht... [Read More]
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