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Opinion: Nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest, and cheapest – why do we continue to reject it?

Fossil fuels are messy, costly, dangerous to workers and killing our planet. Nuclear energy could be the answer if we let go of illogical, emotional arguments against it.

Peter Ferguson

COAL CONSISTS OF over 40% of the world’s energy consumption. Like all power generation and consumption, coal energy comes at a cost, both in terms of human lives and the impact on the environment. However, the negative impacts of coal are substantially greater than any other sources of energy.

Some 30,000 coalminers have died since 1970, more than in the production of any other energy source. Just recently, Turkey experienced its worst mining disaster with more than 300 miners losing their lives.

But the real cost of coal is in its environmental impact. Coal combustion is the largest contributor to anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere which contributes greatly to global warming. Coal mining also produces methane which has a global warming potential 21 times greater than CO2.

The pollutants produced by coal mining and coal burning also have detrimental effects on health. It can cause or increase the risk of a myriad of health concerns such as heart attack, asthma, lung cancer, bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in 2008 that pollution from coal particles causes one million deaths yearly.

Given the dangers of coal production and its subsequent adverse health effects, it is alarming that the international community is migrating away from the cleanest, cheapest, and safest method of generating electricity: nuclear energy.

Nuclear power’s reputation as a safe, clean energy source was tarnished after the Chernobyl disaster, when in 1986 steam pressure caused the reactor vessel to rupture sending a plume of radioactive material into the atmosphere.

Aside from the deaths caused by the initial explosion and its subsequent clean-up, the radiation which was released also had an impact on the health of the population surrounding Chernobyl. Due to the difficult nature of determining radiation’s role in causing fatal diseases, estimates of the deaths caused by the Chernobyl disaster vary widely. The accepted projected upper limit (UN/WHO/UNSCEAR) for radiation deaths from Chernobyl is 4,000. There has been little evidence of an increase of birth defects or cancer being linked to the disaster, according to UNSCEAR, despite intense study over nigh on 30 years. Others have made claims that Chernobyl has caused almost one million deaths but such claims have been roundly debunked and rejected by the academic community.

However, it raises an interesting point – even if we were to treat this dubious assertion as true, the disaster at Chernobyl has only caused a similar number of deaths which the coal industry causes on a yearly basis. Global reliance on coal is essentially the equivalent of a yearly Chernobyl disaster. However, the key difference is the disaster at the Chernobyl was just that: a disaster. Whereas the deaths attributed to coal are the inevitable by-product of the coal industry even when factories are functioning optimally.

The disaster at Chernobyl is never likely to be replicated. Even for its time the safeguards at Chernobyl were deficient, it lacked vital layers of containment which, if present, would have contained the disaster. For example, it was thanks to these vital layers of containment that a partial meltdown on Three Mile Island led to zero deaths and no observable long term health effects.

When three reactors at the Fukushima plant in Japan went into meltdown in 2011 after being hit by a tsunami, there were no fatalities and no adverse health effects are predicted. Yet despite the accident causing zero deaths, it still provoked anti-nuclear demonstrations worldwide.

Many proposed nuclear projects were postponed or completely abandoned. Germany decided to phase out all of its nuclear power reactors by 2022. National referendums were held in Belgium, Italy, and Switzerland, all of whom voted against building any more nuclear power plants.

Such a reaction is surprising given the total lack of fatalities, especially when you compare it to the international reaction to the coalmining accident in Turkey: there wasn’t one. There were no anti-coal demonstrations, no discussions on the future expansion of coal factories, no plans to scale back the production or reliance on coal.

It becomes quite clear that reactions to incidents surrounding nuclear energy are disproportionate to those related to other energy sources. In terms of human cost, nuclear energy is only a threat when things go drastically wrong, which happens rarely and, in fact, nuclear energy has one of the best safety records. Environmentally, its carbon footprint is even lower than some renewable energy sources.

The question then arises as to why people are so willing to reject the option of nuclear power and accept coal along with all its adverse effects?

This is due to the fact nuclear energy shares a name with the most destructive device ever witnessed. So when people hear the term nuclear power they immediately form a mental link to the nuclear bomb as if it’s somehow synonymous.

There is also an element of the “not in my back yard” syndrome. As long as deaths due to coal pollution are disguised as other maladies and coalmining accidents are in a foreign land then the negative consequences of meeting one’s energy demands are out of sight and out of mind.

However, these are emotional, not rational, reasons for rejecting nuclear energy. When you get down to the cold hard facts, nuclear energy is the cleanest, safest, and cheapest method of energy production. To dismiss it on an emotional basis isn’t just foolish, it is careless and costly. We are facing a grave threat in climate change and nuclear power is the solution, we only need embrace it.

Peter Ferguson is a sceptic and a writer, he is a contributing author in the upcoming book 13 Reasons to Doubt, and he blogs at SkepticInk.com. Twitter @humanisticus

Read: ‘A ticking timebomb’: contamination shield at Chernobyl delayed due to Ukrainian crisis

Read: Obama wants to cut carbon emissions from power plants by 30% – not everyone agrees

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