Relative Dangers of Energy Sources

Which energy sources are the most dangerous? Which cost the most lives every year/kWh? Which have the highest risk of costing lives in the future.

Test your knowledge of the dangers – from mining to accidents to waste – from various energy sources. Then return to this blog to share your thinking.

Oil is rarely used to make electricity in the industrialized world. But there are proposals that coal or/and nuclear power be used to replace oil in plug-in hybrids. Would we benefit?

Score 13 – 14 — your knowledge is excellent!
Score 11 – 12 — you still score considerably above average
Score 10 — still above average
Score 9 or fewer — um, are you getting your information from the sources I once used?

Some time in the next month or two, I want to follow up with a blog discussion on spiritual dimensions of policy choices, and behavior choices.

Update: Also see Nuclear Power in a Warming World

10 Responses to “Relative Dangers of Energy Sources”

  1. Judy Tart says:

    I feel that asking how many may die over the next
    “trillion years” is an unanswerable question. In the first place,
    human beings are unlikely to exist – nor is our solar system or the known universe – at that point in time. But we know that thousands have died from exposure to radioactive materials mainly in the form of fallout, and we are unlikely to have stable governments in place to truly safeguard all the radioactive waste that is being generated now – for the next thousand years, let alone millions or trillions of years.

    I know that coal and oil are extremely polluting and are leading to massive global problems, but I am not ready to opt for having hundreds of nuclear power plants in their place – especially when there are safe green options such as solar and wind generation available now.

  2. Jon Wharf says:

    Judy, I tend to agree that the waste question should have been phrased as “over the next 1000 years” rather than hard-to-imagine timescales of more than the universe’s current age. 1000 years is more than enough time for the fission products of nuclear power to become less radioactive than natural uranium.

    However I disagree when you call wind and solar “safe green options” in a way that implies nuclear is not. In particular, there is no proven or easy way to bring intermittent supplies like solar and wind to more than about 20% of the electricity supplies, so – in the context of replacing coal – I find it hard to call them an option at all. Nuclear is as safe and (in the minds of many) as green as either – and it is a proven option.

  3. LunaKit says:

    This is great. think it puts into perspective what we should be opting for in terms of fast, effective, and safe energy choices. A summary table where we can directly compare how the numbers work out, would really help in creating a clear picture. I agree with Jon on the issue of greener options. Yes, solar and wind are renewable sources of energy, but it will be a long time before/if they become mainstay. At any rate, i think climate change is more imminent than a time when all our energy needs will be met by solar and wind.

  4. Gail Eastwood says:

    Hi Karen,

    Thanks for posting all this information. The information about dangers from stored nuclear wastes is interesting, since that’s been one of my two big concerns about nuclear energy. My other concern has to do with the safety of the plants themselves. I live in an area of historically massive subduction quakes (up to 9.0!), and the nuclear plant in Eureka is mothballed–but not decommissioned. I feel threatened by that close and vulnerable radioactive presence. Chernobyl is not the only place that could rack up massive costs. (I was pregnant during the Chernobyl incident, and the track of the contamination included my land, garden and dairy goat pasture–even now I have some uneasiness about the influence of this exposure on my daughter.)


  5. Oliver says:

    I have some problems with the data cited. If we look, for example, at coal mining, we have a huge number of dead in countries such as China, where safety issues are largely ignored and the sheer size of the workforce makes human losses largely inconsequential for the powers that be. Such cases lead to a skewed perspective as to the safety of coal mining overall. It does nothing to show the propensity of coal mining accidents if done responsibly.

    Second, the notion that “During the first 10,000 years, there would be essentially no exposure to radioactivity.” is naive, since it totally blocks out human action. There is no way to tell if the area turns out to be a construction site for large-scale installations in, say, 5000 years, and given our records going more and more into electronical form, it is highly unlikely that the site is being tracked as hazardous for such a timeframe. Also, the monetary costs presented for nuclear power usually do not include the safeguarding measures necessary to ensure precisely those 10 000 years of safety PLUS those necessary to prevent such a place from becoming a self-service for dirty bomb builders.

    Third, it is misleading to attribute the costs in human lives due to stealing of oil or gas from pipelines to actual drilling. Regardless of how revolting one may find the policies and actions of oil companies, responsible for the deaths where they result from drilled holes in the pipelines and not from leaks due to negligence is the one drilling the hole, not the one putting the pipeline into place. And likewise, the numbers listed here are skewed by looking at areas where safety measures are often substandard. We just had the worst storm in 20 years hit Europe, but the oil port in Rotterdam escaped unharmed and the largest danger to oil and gas production in this storm seasons was a ship that had become unable to maneuver drifting towards some gas platforms.

    It is likewise misleading to point at oil being a tool for conflict while acting as if uranium would not become the same if nuclear power did not become more widespread.

    Lastly, the suggestion that zero people have died from nuclear power plants in normal operation is an issue that is largely simply following operator statements. Since such deaths are bound to be long-term, there’s plenty of opportunity to deny and actual verification is highly problematic. For example, in 2004, a number of scientists on a commission examining a particularly high incidence of leukemia in an area of northern Germany in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant and a nuclear research center resigned after 12 years, stating that their work had been systematically hindered. That in the very same context, a study is cited on release of nuclear particles from coal is highly problematic, since it does not contribute to the actual question addressed and the text itself lacks any and all credentials. The article is pure punditry and completely unscientific. Most importantly, it suffers from the author having specific interests in the issue, from statements being not properly referenced, from the bibliography being of inferior quality and from ignoring the issue of combined power and heat and from the natural occurance of the radioactive substances in coal in the environment. If, for example, regular soil contains just as much of the same or similarly radioactive substances, than fly ash and soil wind drift will be indistinguishable. Likewise, it remains to be seen whether such ash is released in all cases or whether nations exist in which technology is used to scrub it out of the exhausts.

    Let’s wait for nuclear fusion and see whether the ubiquity of fuel, the relatively low radioactive contamination of the parts used and the high energy yield and thus reduced need for reactors coming with it will alleviate some of the problems.

  6. J. Higgins says:

    Nuclear power is the only reasonable, safe, and environmentally-friendly means of producing electricity. In addition, through means of re-processing, there is no reason for there to be any nuclear “waste” at all. Also, many nuclear reactors are breeder reactors, which produce more fuel than they consume.

    Wind energy is not reasonable because it causes more environmental harm than nuclear power, and yet it can’t possibly make a dent in the power grid. It also takes an immense amount of land area.

    The chemical process used to create solar cells is incredibly harmful to the environment. Solar energy couldn’t possibly make a dent in the power grid, either, and as a fuel for a car, it’s incredibly unpractical.

    Here is a chart from this site that compares the harmful effects of each source of energy:

  7. Ted Rockwell says:


    I urge you, and others of like mind, to read Gwyneth Cravens’s excellent book. Just to take one question with regard to your post: Why should we consider that radioactive materials pose an unprecedented hazard? The usual answer is: Because they stay toxic for so long. But non-radioactive poisons, such as arsenic, lead, selenium, and the toxic materials used to make solar panels, maintain their toxicity undiminished FOREVER!

    You’re a smart woman. Look at the facts in Cravens’s book. For example: any chemical process for generating energy (such as burning coal or gasoline) requires millions of times more fuel than nuclear fission and thus millions of time more waste. Digging up and transporting that fuel, and disposing of that waste is fundamentally harder on the earth.

    Do read the book. And get Charlie to read it also.

    Ted Rockwell

  8. Oliver says:

    Ted, as long as you don’t understand the difference between toxic and radioactive, I don’t think you make a good advocate on this issue. Not the least, you’re wrong. Arsenic etc. do not maintain their toxicity undiminished forever, their toxicity varies greatly depending on what form of compound they’re in.

  9. Karen Street says:

    Oliver and everyone, thanks for visiting, finally responding to a slew of comments,

    Oliver, I don’t understand your point. Ted was saying that radioactivity is just one type of toxicity. I’ve heard this point confuse scientists many times, as the public seems more interested in radioactive atoms, such as uranium, than in elements that are more dangerous if we look at all toxicity, chemical and radioactive. Lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury are 4 elements that would not be used commercially if they had to meet the standards for uranium.

    That we can bind arsenic does not change the underlying fact, that too much attention to toxicities with half lives can mean ignoring much greater problems.

    Re other points from Oliver above. That coal can be done safer misses a major point. It isn’t done safer, and people are pretty OK with that, except for some of us who are not. Since fossil fuel plants require 100,000 – 1 million times as much fuel as nuclear power plants, obtaining fossil fuels will always be more dangerous.

    Yucca Mountain will not depend on an Achtung sign and a sentry. A baseline assumption all countries must make in planning for long term storage of high level or low level nuclear waste is the collapse of the government, in at most a few hundred years.

    I agree that it is unclear whether to attribute the deaths in Nigeria to oil and was ambivalent on that count. But the truth is, we ignore pretty large numbers for oil that would not be ignored for uranium. I have a difficult time seeing people steal uranium and coal in any large conflict.

    Er, leukemia near nuclear power plants? There appear to be two types of public health studies, one that goes through peer review and one that does not. Since coal plants emit 100 times as much radioactivity/kWh while in normal operation, and 4 times as much in operation as nuclear will expose us to over its complete life cycle, and that amount is small, it’s hard to see a nuclear power plant emissions as large. I’m not sure why you feel that an article out of Oak Ridge National Labs is written in an unscientific manner–do too much of that and one tends to lose one’s job as a scientist. I’ve also seen Steven Chu, head of Lawrence Berkeley Labs, citing the article, and heads of national labs really lose their jobs fast if the people who work for them think them clueless about science.

    Re waiting for nuclear fusion, it will be a long wait. 40 years means the same thing to physicists as in the Jewish Bible: a long time. It may not happen. Before that time, we have to totally decarbonize the world’s supply of electricity, which will be double in 2050 what it is today.

    Oliver, it basically comes to this: can you find material accepted by scientists that shows that nuclear power’s dangers are anywhere comparable to the dangers we accept elsewhere? Provide sources please! And there’s another concern that dominates much of the public, climate change. People who see themselves as intransigent on nuclear power are changing their minds because the horrors of climate change are so much worse than the most heightened fears people have about nuclear power. Germany is building large numbers of coal power plants to replace the nuclear power plants that are being closed at age 32, rather than age 60. Report after report after report has decried this. Since climate concerns will require all coal plants be converted to carbon capture and storage or closed prematurely, the opposite is likely to occur, that nuclear plants will continue in operation and the coal plants closed early. Soon, I predict, fears of climate change, not fears of nuclear, will determine German policy. Apparently, support for nuclear is equal to opposition in Germany, 46% each, based on a small sample (500): Germans split on nuclear phase out

    Gail, unless a nuclear power plant is right on a fault, a pretty poor economic decision, then in case of an earthquake, it shuts off. Outside of directly downwind nearby, pretty much in the Ukraine and Byelorus, Chernobyl exposure never became significant compared to a cigarette habit of say 1/day, or living in Denver, or in areas with naturally high radioactivity, or…. I saw Gofman taped saying that there would be not fewer than 100,000 people dying from Chernobyl, and governments killing sheep that had pretty minor exposures, so it was natural to become worried, but the official IAEA report pretty much nixes the idea of widespread dangers from Chernobyl. Based on what I have read, I wouldn’t worry about living near a decommissioned plant or near Yucca Mountain (except the area around Yucca Mountain is so barren, no one has ever lived there). Also, western plants have containment systems, and so an operating plant accident can never be as serious as Chernobyl, and a closed plant even less so.

    J. Higgins, I don’t know why you say that nuclear is the only green option. Solar in China is incredibly polluting, but photovoltaics made in the first world not so much. Wind by 2030 will hopefully supply 20% of US electricity, with natural gas backup so that’s not quite as clean as it sounds. I hope that (almost) all forms of low-greenhouse gas sources of energy increase at rates more rapidly than experts predict. If so, the world will be better off.

    This discussion is important, and it was where I personally started. I assumed that the dangers of nuclear power and the competing sources were comparable. I was wrong.

  10. Gail Eastwood says:

    Thanks for your responses, Karen, it’s an important subject. I think the information about the faultline very close to the Humboldt Bay reactor was discovered after the plant was built (30 years ago or so). Also, the knowledge about the West Coast subduction zone postdates the planning and construction of the plant. Of course, they planned around known dangers, but new information has emerged that makes people (me included) nervous. The Triple Junction is way to close for comfort here.