But when the dead and sickened are added up, how dangerous is it really?
The partial meltdown in Japan has injured 23 people and exposed as many as 21 to levels of radiation higher than is considered safe to receive in one year. Two workers are still missing but are assumed to have been killed by the earthquake or tsunami, not the nuclear accident. No people in the “plume zone” outside the plant have been contaminated to a degree that is expected to affect their health, based on radiation readings so far.
In the months after the world’s worst nuclear disaster, in Chernobyl in 1986, about 50 people died. In the next-biggest accident, at Three Mile Island in 1979, no one did.
History suggests that nuclear power rarely kills and causes little illness. That’s also the conclusion engineers reach when they model scenarios for thousands of potential accidents.
Making electricity from nuclear power turns out to be far less damaging to human health than making it from coal, oil or even clean-burning natural gas, according to numerous analyses. That’s even more true if the predicted effects of climate change are thrown in.
Compared with nuclear power, coal is responsible for five times as many worker deaths from accidents, 470 times as many deaths due to air pollution among members of the public, and more than 1,000 times as many cases of serious illness, according to a study of the health effects of electricity generation in Europe.
“The costs of fossil fuels come out quite high, while the costs for nuclear generally come out low,” said Anil Markandya, an economist at the University of Bath in England and scientific director of the Basque Centre for Climate Change in Spain, who co-authored the study published in the Lancet in 2007.
Even in the wake of the Fuku
shima Daiichi disaster, Markandya and many others who have done similar work can’t imagine a situation — a realistic one, that is — in which the health cost of nuclear power would equal that of coal.
Or even come close.
The hidden costs
About half of the electricity in the United States is made with coal-fired plants and about one-fifth with nuclear power. Many experts think there is an urgent need to determine what role nuclear power should play in feeding America’s energy-hungry future.
To inform that discussion, economists, engineers and epidemiologists have teamed up to determine the full economic, health, social and environmental consequences of generating electricity with various fuels. Most of this work has been done in Europe, where the acceptability of nuclear power, and the fraction of electricity generated with it, differs greatly among nations of the European Union.