Evaluating Energy Sources by Human Deaths

Via WebEcoist, 13-07-2011

In all the furor during the Fukushima Reactor Complex crisis, there has been a lot of discussion about whether or not nuclear power is a good option and, more generally, what kinds of power should be used to meet increasing demand. An unusual piece that was making the rounds on this topic was an article about the number of deaths per terawatt-hour (TWh) for different kinds of power production. It’s an interesting metric to use to weigh different methods of generating power.

Nuclear power, interestingly, is at the bottom of the list, with only 0.04 deaths per TWh, while coal tops the list with a world average of 161 deaths per TWh. The numbers for this were calculated looking at not only at direct impacts from power station accidents, but also indirect effects, such as coal miners’ deaths and deaths due to air pollution, as well. The list gets difficult, though, when it starts to ascribe deaths in supporting industries to the total. Steel and concrete are needed to construct wind turbines, and the calculations extend to include industrial deaths in the mining and manufacture of those components, as well as transportation deaths. While it’s not unreasonable to ascribe those fractions to the overall calculation, it does make it start to get a bit tenuous.

Rather than take any of these numbers as hard and fast conclusions (any two reasonable people could have long arguments over any number of assumptions in these statistics), the general trends and relative scale of each could instead be given consideration in weighing options. Although nuclear power may have a low associated death rate, the economic cost of the energy produced this way is quite high, and there is a great deal of public opposition and NIMBY reaction to new nuclear power plants.

A lot of the investment in nuclear power goes to safety and security, rather than to producing power. The money spent on backups and redundant safety systems for a nuclear plant isn’t increasing power efficiency. A nuclear plant might cost as much as $8,000 (or more) per kW of electrical generating capacity (though this number is speculative, since no new nuclear plants have been built for many years), while a wind turbine might cost $1,200 to $2,600 per kW. A wind turbine won’t necessarily generate power as steadily as a reactor, but it’s a lot less expensive to build.

Operating costs are another big, but rarely discussed element in favor of many renewable power systems. Actively operated electrical generating facilities need many full-time employees operating the plant’s various systems. However, solar and wind power facilities do not typically need the same active management. While the construction and installation costs may be higher, the operating costs might be far lower.

Construction costs, environmental costs, operating costs, financing and regulatory costs all enter into the power generation equation. All of these factors need to be taken into account to make more reasonable decisions about power generation.

link: Economics_of_new_nuclear_power_plants (Wikipedia)