Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Scientific Literacy, Power Plants, and Shutdowns, Oh My!

The deadly and tragic earthquake in Miyagi was without a doubt the preeminent geological event of the year. (Aside: people are certainly still trying to rebuild the communities and towns swallowed up into the earth in March, please consider donating. The flow of cash has most likely slowed down now that we don't see it in the news on a daily basis. Need outlasts people's memories.)

But what continued to make headlines long after the fact was the meltdown at the Daiichi power plant. Nuclear power and the ramifications of it are already not well understood by the general public; add in sensationalist news stories and ill-informed bloggers calling Daiichi "the next Chernobyl" and drawing all kinds of conclusions and connections and the result is nothing good. People in California panicking and buying up potassium iodide supplies, for example, and now Germany is scrapping its nuclear program in favor of coal.

Coal. Coal is non-renewable, kind of dirty, and not terribly efficient.

And while they were already planning to take them offline, the speed-up in the shutdown is due pretty much to the panic over Daiichi.

I do not mean to understate the dangers of radiation or the living hell that is radiation sickness. But just because coal isn't radioactive doesn't mean it's inherently better, or safer.

A very scientifically literate friend of mine, Scott, laid it all out over at his blog. It's a clear, cogent, and entirely readable explanation of nuclear versus everything else; I'm reproducing it in part. (The entire entry, including comments from other readers, is here.)

You know what kills more people per year than nuclear plants?


According to the Clean Air Task Force, coal plants kill about thirty thousand people per year in the US through pollution (which causes respiratory disease). There are six hundred coal plants, so that's about 50 deaths per plant. These numbers are much higher - maybe even by an order of magnitude - in Chinese and third-world coal plants, which lack the US' stringent environmental restrictions.

So far there have been zero deaths from the crisis in Fukushima; this doesn't preclude deaths from cancer later on, but because of the speed of the evacuation I don't think it is too optimistic to hope the final death toll will be below fifty.

So think about that for a second. When you hit a nuclear plant with the fifth largest earthquake ever recorded, then immediately follow that with a twenty foot high tsunami, and then it explodes, it still kills fewer people than an average coal plant does every single year when everything goes perfectly.

I'm going to repeat that entire paragraph for emphasis. When you hit a nuclear plant with the fifth largest earthquake ever recorded, then immediately follow that with a twenty foot high tsunami, and then it explodes, it still kills fewer people than an average coal plant does every single year when everything goes perfectly.

Yet now Germany says they're going to suspend their nuclear program. You know what's probably going to replace it? Coal. And protestors in the US are agitating to close my home county's beloved nuclear plant of San Onofre. You know what's probably gonna replace it? More coal.

A useful measure of power plant capacity is the "terawatt", equal to one trillion watts. Coal kills 2500 times as many people per terawatt as nuclear. In fact, nuclear power has the lowest fatality per terawatt of any form of power in existence. Rooftop solar power has a per terawatt death rate ten times worse than nuclear power because of - I kid you not - people falling off roofs when installing the panel. Hydroelectric power has a worse fatality rate because of dams bursting and flooding people. Even wind power has a worse fatality per terawatt rate - seventy three people have died in windmill related accidents.


And everyone, please stop pretending like this somehow "proves" nuclear power doesn't work. Nuclear continues to be the safest and most environmentally responsible form of large-scale power generation ever invented. One incident, no matter how tragic, does not change that. The fact that "radiation" is a scary-sounding word does not change that. The fact that people can say things like "twenty times background radiation" or "almost a microsievert per hour" when what they really mean is "eight bananas" does not change that. And if people let their fears get the better of them and kill off nuclear projects, they'll be getting rid of one of our best hopes for a solution to climate change and the general problem of power production.

I will grant that uranium extraction may still be a major issue; what to do with nuclear waste is as well. (I vote for shooting it into space.) But until we perfect solar energy (our efficiency with solar, in terms of sun captured versus usable energy output, is pretty sad, although the synthetic leaf may change all of that), nuclear is probably our safest and most efficient shot. Internet fear mongers: give it a rest, please.

Also, on the related topic of encouraging scientific literacy in the general populace, check out this rad magazine called Guru. You can download it for pretty much anything, or page through a Flash version right on your PC. It's a cute balance between lifestyle and science (like an intellectually stimulating, useful, and not-offensive-to-feminist-sensibilities version of Cosmo) and the first issue, at least, is free!

1 comment:

  1. Hey kokoba!
    Thanks for mentioning Guru! Next issue is out soon - would love to get your feedback (available from 1st August) :)
    And yes... it will be remaining free (horray!)