Nuclear power advocates make illogical comparison to hydroelectric and coal plant accidents

When a Guy Chapman responded to my blog entry on ending nuclear-generated electricity by citing a 1975 Chinese Dam accident in which 26,000 died and another 140,000 may have starved to death later, I thought I would ignore it. 

But yesterday in many newspapers across the globe, Gwynne Dyer, a legitimate international journalist, repeated the ridiculous argument central to Chapman’s response, that nuclear is unfairly treated and held to a higher standard than we hold other ways of generating electricity. 

Now I have to analyze what looks like one of the major rhetorical strategies that the nuclear industry and its supporters will employ to explain away the growing disaster at Fukushima.

The way this argument goes, hundreds of miners die every year and only 5,000 died at Chernobyl, which of course ignores the thousands of malformed children born or those who developed thyroid and other cancers afterwards and the hundreds of thousands of early deaths that have occurred and we know will occur over the coming decades.

There are five problems with the argument that other electrical-generating industries kill more people and get a free pass:

  1. It’s not true that the other industries get a free pass:  After the 1975 Chinese hydroelectric disaster, the heads of those in charge rolled and the dam was entirely rebuilt.  We see what’s happening to Massey and its CEO in the wake of the West Virginia coal accident: investigations and indictments.
  2. You are comparing apples to oranges:  In both the hydroelectric and the coal comparison, the authors compare the total fatalities of many accidents or of the very worst imaginable accident to the immediate fatalities of what may or may not have been a severe nuclear plant accident. 
  3. The failures leading to most of the coal and hydroelectric accidents resulted either from human error, poor maintenance or bad technology, all of which can be corrected with existing technologies and higher inspection standards, which virtually all nations are now dedicated to achieving.  But while human error and inferior design have led to most nuclear accidents, too, the unavoidable safety hazards of nuclear are inherent in that it produces harmful radiation, which is impossible to store safely and lingers for tens of thousands of years.
  4. A hydroelectric or coal accident affects only the immediate surroundings, whereas the nuclear accident can infect water and food hundreds and even thousands of miles away.
  5. It is possible to implement all the steps to ameliorate hydroelectric or coal damage to the natural and human environments within the course of a few decades at the most.  Ameliorating not only the damage from a nuclear accident, but the waste nuclear produces takes far longer than the recorded history of mankind to this date.   

One thing that all these technologies have in common is the need for governmental support to produces inexpensive electricity.  If governments made coal-powered generating plants use equipment that is now available to “scrub” most of the noxious wastes from burning coal to generate electricity, the price of electricity would rise significantly.  Virtually all hydroelectric projects have government support.  In the case of nuclear-generated electricity, the industry would not even exist without the Price-Anderson Act, which limits the financial liability of companies that generate electricity through nuclear fission to the equivalent of the cost of a fender-bender. If we were to repeal the Price-Anderson Act, I’m betting virtually every nuclear power plant in the United States would shut down in 10 years.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t provide support to electricity-producing industries.  What I am saying is that we should immediately end all governmental support of nuclear-generated electricity and invest that money into cleaning up and making safer existing technologies and commercializing solar, wind and other renewable alternatives. 

One comment on “Nuclear power advocates make illogical comparison to hydroelectric and coal plant accidents
  1. Johan says:

    This text if filled with exactly the kind of skewed arguments the author is blaming others for. An interesting and 1984-ish read. And – of course – an occational outright lie: “5,000 died at Chernobyl”

    UNSCEAR has conducted 20 years of detailed scientific and epidemiological research on the effects of the Chernobyl accident. Apart from the 57 direct deaths in the accident itself, UNSCEAR originally predicted up to 4,000 additional cancer cases due to the accident.[85] Sceptics claimed that such an increase may be attributed to increased screening for cancer after the disaster.

    NSCEAR now states:
    Among the residents of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, there had been up to the year 2005 more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, and more cases can be expected during the next decades. Notwithstanding the influence of enhanced screening regimes, many of those cancers were most likely caused by radiation exposures shortly after the accident. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure two decades after the accident. There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality rates or in rates of non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure. The incidence of leukaemia in the general population, one of the main concerns owing to the shorter time expected between exposure and its occurrence compared with solid cancers, does not appear to be elevated. Although those most highly exposed individuals are at an increased risk of radiation-associated effects, the great majority of the population is not likely to experience serious health consequences as a result of radiation from the Chernobyl accident. Many other health problems have been noted in the populations that are not related to radiation exposure.

    26.000 people were killed immediately at the hydroelectric dam collapse in China 1975. Thousands of Americans (some estimates 13.000) die an early death each year due to pollution from coal fired powerplants. You do the math.

    The BIG story in Japan is NOT the nuclear accident itself. REAL news in order of importance:

    1. An earthquake and a tsunami killed more than 20.000 people. A natural disaster and a huge tragedy.
    2. The 40 year old nuclear powerplants in the region that was hit by this unimaginable disaster has yet to contribute to the death toll in any significant number. An amazingly strong indication on the safety and viability of nuclear power.
    3. Lame governments around the globe (Germany stands out as the lamest) are getting all the facts wrong and consider – based on the Fukushima accident – to stop investing in modern nuclear power.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


1 × three =