Reading about the Fukushima nuclear power plant workers who risked their own lives to save those of others made me cry today. Then I read some more energy-related death statistics that were even more depressing. Turns out, even with the growing death toll at the Fukushima, nuclear power is far less dangerous than power from fossil fuels.

Why? The short answer is pollution. NewScientist has the rundown. Citing a International Energy Agency review, NewScientist points out that nuclear actually cause the fewest deaths. Coal causes the most:

The explanation lies in the large number of deaths caused by pollution. “It’s the whole life cycle that leads to a trail of injuries, illness and death,” says Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Fine particles from coal power plants kill an estimated 13,200 people each year in the U.S. alone, according to the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (The Toll from Coal, 2010). Additional fatalities come from mining and transporting coal, and other forms of pollution associated with coal. In contrast, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N. estimate that the death toll from cancer following the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl will reach around 9000.
Next Big Future crunched its own numbers from the World Health Organization and other sources, to come to similar conclusions:
The World Health Organization and other sources attribute about 1 million deaths/year to coal air pollution. Coal generates about 6200 TWh out of the world total of 15500 TWh of electricity. This would be 161 deaths per TWh.


In the USA about 30,000 deaths/year from coal pollution from 2000 TWh. 15 deaths per TWh.

Another surprising factoid I learned from Next Big Future is the relatively high danger of rooftop solar installation — but I digress. Of course, the calculations are always somewhat rough. For example, in the comments, Next Big Future points out that the calculations count only deaths so far, not future deaths or “lifetime exposure and expected lifetime shortening.”

But regardless, the number of deaths due to coal and fossil fuels in general are far greater than those caused by nuclear power. If the death stats for coal is so much higher, why don’t we get an equally higher uproar about how coal kills? Seth Godin suspects marketing tampers with the way we see the world: “Perhaps it was advertising, or perhaps deliberate story telling by an industry. Or perhaps it was just the stories we tell one another in our daily lives.” NewScientist suggests that catastrophic events simply scare people more, while slow, individual deaths don’t register as strongly.

In related news, Grist reports that the Obama administration has announced a massive coal mining expansion. If you’re concerned about this, Sierra Club has an ongoing Beyond Coal campaign that seeks supporters and volunteers.

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