Live Science ponders the irony of nuclear energy, so potentially dangerous yet remarkably safer than most other energy sources, particularly coal and other fossil fuels, according to columnist Christopher Wanjek.
As an example, Wanjek cites the Japanese nuclear reactor Fukushima Daiichi, damaged in the tsunami that struck the island nation last month and which continues to leak trace amounts of radiation.
Not long after the earthquake and resulting tsunami, radioactive iodine-131 made it into the water supply in Tokyo, 150 miles or so south of the damaged reactor. But most has since decayed into stable xenon, Wanjek writes.
Wanjek says that means that those individuals who evacuated Tokyo because of the threat at Fukushima likely received more radiation on the airplane flight from the Japanese capital than they would have if they had stayed at home.
The international flyer “receives a dose of about 0.10 millisievert, or the amount of ionizing radiation in two dental X-rays, from the sun’s radioactive cosmic rays,” according to Wanjek.
The bigger point of Wanjek’s piece is that as bad as Japan’s nuclear emergency could have been, it would never be as bad as burning coal:
Coal is fantastically dangerous, responsible for far more than 1 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization.
Start with the coal miners, thousands of whom die from mine collapses and thousands more from various lung diseases. Next, add the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the public from breathing coal’s gaseous and particulate pollution, mostly from respiratory and heart disease.
Next, add the untold deaths and disabilities resulting from mercury in coal entering into the food chain. Then add the millions of acres of land, river and lake destroyed by mining waste.
Some of China’s citizens worried about a radioactive wind blowing over from Japan, but coal-burning power plants from China are causing far more health problems for both China and Japan.
Coal even releases more radioactive material than nuclear energy — 100 times more per the same amount of energy produced, according to Dana Christensen of the US Department of Energy, as reported in Scientific American in 2007.
Wanjek is no blind proponent of nuclear power, however. He concedes that nuclear power, like all other forms of energy, has its downside.
“This is a comparative exercise,” he writes. “Part of the reason why nuclear energy is safer is that we store the radioactive waste in drums with the assumption that maybe in a hundred years or so we’ll figure out how to render it non-radioactive.”
He adds that the area around Fukushima Daiichi will be a ghost town for generations. And even if it is deemed safe, no one will eat the food from there, given other choices.
No one will want to work or go to school there, given other choices. The livelihood of tens of thousands of Japanese people has been forever ruined, he adds.
But according to WHO statistics, there are at least 4,025 deaths from coal for every single death from nuclear power.
Switch to other forms of energy and you still come up with more deaths. Natural gas is 100 times deadlier than nuclear energy while oil is 900 times deadlier, Wanjek writes.
The bottom line – there’s a cost associated with everything. Nuclear power may have the potential for great disaster, but it’s been a largely untapped disaster, unlike other forms of energy.
We may want to keep that in mind before we begin taking nuclear power plant construction projects off the table in direct response to the recent disaster in Japan.