Thought Leadership

Nuclear v. Fossil Fuels: Basing Policy on Facts

Category: Thought Leadership
Eric Gould • July 24, 2018

We ask a lot of our energy sources, in theory. We need to meet our demand for electricity, but the contribution of power generation to climate change and pollution must be addressed.

For its part, nuclear fits the bill in many ways – it’s clean, reliable and always at the ready. Like every other source, it has unique aspects that must be controlled and managed. But one issue in particular – public concerns about its effect on health – deserves a closer look.

When you look at the facts around the health impacts of nuclear, you find that perception is somewhat skewed. What is most concerning about that is that fears of nuclear push us toward energy sources that are already contributing to health problems and environmental degradation in a very real way.

A recent analysis by Resources for the Future is worth a read; it does a good job of bearing this out. The group looked at the impact of a Trump administration proposal to delay the retirements of coal and nuclear power plants scheduled to come offline in two years.

It found that, under the proposed policy, one person would die from pollution for every two to 4.5 jobs the plan created or saved. This is the reality of burning fossil fuels.

While the analysis found that extending only the coal plants would cause 380 to 868 deaths, it also found that extending the operation of only the nuclear plants earmarked for closure would actually prevent 27 to 53 deaths from air pollution.

This is just from regular, day-to-day operation.

But what about the accidents? Disasters such as the one at the Fukushima plant in Japan continue to bolster detractors’ arguments. While the earthquake risk was understood, the assessment of tsunami risk was underestimated. TEPCO has accepted accountability for this and the broader industry is now safer and more robust because of it.

But despite the unacceptable outcome that did occur, no deaths or incidences of radiation sickness have been attributed to the event.

An article in the journal The Lancet that studied the health effects of the five most significant nuclear events concluded that the most common issues were psychological health issues that arose from the event and that evacuating and displacing vulnerable populations created severe health problems for many. (The economic cost of the evacuation was also great, with billions in compensation being paid out to those who were displaced.)

At the same time, according to the World Health Organization, air pollution (arising from a variety of sources including power generation), is estimated to have caused 4.2 million premature deaths in 2016.

Facts really do matter.

None of this excuses the real impacts to people that have occurred as a result of nuclear operation. Events like Fukushima are exactly the type of operational risk and decision-making failure the nuclear industry needs to learn from and strive to prevent. Risk must be managed responsibly.

But the dramatic events as portrayed in the media don’t tell the full story. As we look for ways to harness the power of our energy sources, it’s important that we draw conclusions and make public policy based on facts and the overall picture they create.