Guest editorial: Yes, humans err, but that’s no reason to forsake nuclear energy
In response to Martin Jedlicka’s guest editorial titled “Nuclear power is subject to human error — and that makes it a poor solution to climate change” in the May 11-14 edition of The Park Record: Yes, humans err. That is why, until surpassed by drug overdoses this year, accidents were the leading cause of death for people under the age of 45. Yet, we don’t sit home afraid to go outside and enjoy life. Fear of nuclear is akin to fear of flying. These fears are promulgated because accidents are big news with the potential for hundreds of deaths from a single incident. The reality, however, is that driving is much more dangerous than flying, yet most people do it daily without thinking twice about the hazards.
Jedlicka cites several statistics about deaths and illnesses from accidents at nuclear plants in his editorial. Numerous peer-reviewed studies in the scientific literature contradict his numbers. Yet even accepting Mr. Jedlicka’s figures equating evacuation deaths with radiation-related deaths, nuclear remains the safest form of energy ever used by humankind. The death toll from 60 years of nuclear power approximates one month of coal-related deaths. According to Forbes, wind and solar are over 1,000 times more deadly than nuclear power in the U.S. Additionally, more people die from inadequate access to energy than from nuclear accidents. According to a study in The Lancet, 200,000 people worldwide die annually from cold-related deaths while approximately 1,148 die from heat-related deaths. Over a billion people worldwide lack electricity. As I stated in my previous guest editorial, the World Health Organization states that millions die each year from burning fossil fuels and biomass. Access to affordable, clean energy would prevent many of these deaths.
Using nuclear power, France and Sweden decarbonized their grids in only 15 and 20 years, respectively. Each now emits less than a tenth of the world average of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. Much has changed in the nuclear industry since the Three Mile Island accident, a Gen 2 facility. American companies are now developing Gen 4 reactors that can be mass-produced (like airplanes or cars); operator training and safety protocols would be likewise standardized, including redundant, passive fail-safe mechanisms designed with Murphy’s Law and even Homer Simpson in mind. Fortunately, these new reactors are receiving bipartisan Congressional support.
According to Swedish energy engineer Staffan A. Quist and his colleagues, the last 60 years of America’s nuclear waste would fit in a Walmart. Nuclear waste is a simpler environmental challenge than coal waste which is routinely dumped near poor communities and is often laden with toxic arsenic, mercury and lead. Twenty years hence, will solar retain its “clean” label when billions of toxic panels reach end-of-life?
Renewables have neither the reliability nor energy density to satisfy the energy needs of the U.S. or the world, and they require backup. Fossil fuels currently provide most of that backup. France and Sweden prove that nuclear technology can replace fossil fuels by mid-century — safely and reliably. In his last paragraph, Mr. Jedlicka reinforces the safety of properly implemented nuclear energy: “the U.S. Navy has not experienced an accident involving 210 nuclear ships over seven decades.”
Yes, humans err, and it would be a terrible error to forsake nuclear because of irrational fears. The CDC reports between 291,000 and 646,000 people die each year from influenza. Even if Mr. Jedlicka’s worst-case scenario statistics are correct and close to 100,000 people have or will die from history’s nuclear accidents over a 70-year period, a rational perspective suggests it is more dangerous to go to the movies where you might sit next to someone with the flu.
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