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Nuclear Power: Still Safest by Far

When a news event occurs that neatly overlaps with the attitudes shared among the mainstream German press corps, coverage becomes amusingly/annoyingly uniform. And one of the most uniform convictions of the German press corps is that nuclear power is alarming, dangerous, and bad. And, of course, that it is their job to ensure that most Germans share this view. Thus the breathless, near-hysterical coverage of the Fukushima partial meltdown. Super GAU!* Atomic Nightmare! Horrifying Disaster! the headlines screech, running around in circles and tearing their hair out.

The Washington Post reports the studies showing that, actually, nuclear power is still pretty safe compared with most other forms of power generation:

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.


There is also much uncertainty about how many people might be harmed by a big nuclear accident.

At Chernobyl, two people died during the accident and 28 others died of radiation illness in the first four months afterward. (Some estimates of the early deaths put the number as high as 57 ).

Since then, there have been 6,800 cases of thyroid cancer in people who were children at the time of the accident, according to a recent report by the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, with the number still rising. As of 2005, only 15 were fatal.

To date, there is no clear increase in leukemia or other cancers, or deaths from non-cancer diseases. However, various expert groups estimate that 4,000 to 33,000 premature deaths might occur as a consequence of the accident.

In general, the hazards of radiation are less than most people think.

Since 1950, Japanese and American researchers have followed 120,000 residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cities on which the United States dropped atomic bombs in 1945 to end World War II. Three-quarters of the people in the Life Span Study were exposed to the blasts; one-quarter were away at the time. The number of deaths attributable to the bombs is estimated by comparing survival in the two groups.

Through 2000, 42,304 of the people in the study had died. Of those deaths, 822 were “excess” — probably a result of the radiation.

So, if you're interested in crusading against excess deaths caused by environmentally unsound power generation, you should be trying to close coal plants, especially in China, which killed more people last month -- if not last week -- than every nuclear plant accident combined.

Needless to say, the Fukishima crisis is serious, where will we store the fuel, nuclear is not the long-term solution, etc. etc. I myself recycle with the best of them, and pay extra for green energy. My point here is about the curious herd insincts of the German press, and their odd tendency to turn every problem into a CRISIS, a CATASTROPHE, a DOOMSDAY APOCALYPSE or a HORRIFYING HUMILIATION. It makes you want to grab their newspapers and slap them around a little bit: "Get a hold of yourself, you hysterical piece of newsprint!"

* GAU, that ubiquitous piece of domesticized bureaucratese that has puzzled many a German learner, actually has nothing to do with Gau, a slighly antiquated term for "district". It stands for the German acronym for the phrase Largest Assumable Accident (literal translation) -- i.e. worst-case scenario.


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M. Möhling

A funny turn--a guy from the Cato Institute thinks that Nuclear Energy [is a] Risky Business. Because it's too pricey, that is:

Nuclear energy is to the Right what solar energy is to the Left: Religious devotion in practice, a wonderful technology in theory, but an economic white elephant in fact (some crossovers on both sides notwithstanding). When the day comes that the electricity from solar or nuclear power plants is worth more than the costs associated with generating it, I will be as happy as the next Greenpeace member (in the case of the former) or MIT graduate (in the case of the latter) to support either technology. But that day is not on the horizon and government policies can't accelerate the economic clock.


There's nothing new about today's rhetoric about the supposed "nuclear renaissance." Back in 1954, GE maintained: "In five years-certainly within 10-a number of them (nuclear plants) will be operating at about the same cost as those using coal. They will be privately financed, built without government subsidy." Now, 54 years later, the talk of "renaissance" is back-as are promises about the imminent economic competitiveness of nuclear.

Those who favor nuclear power should adopt a policy of tough love. Getting this industry off the government dole would finally force it to innovate or die-at least in the United States. Welfare, after all, breeds sloth in both individual and corporate recipients. The Left's distrust of nuclear power is not a sufficient rationale for the Right's embrace of the same.

Those Neocons, ever coming up with new devious schemes. Anyway, there's shale gas aplenty almost everywhere. Let's see what schemes our green fiends come up with to counter that. Garden gnomes: Aaachtung!!


Orr, Alex, come on. We have twelve Kernreaktoren running happily, another three were partially built but never switched on. And we have no Endlager yet (the Asse is leaky and, like Gorleben, only a temporary solution). How's that for a gamble?


@m.möhling, your inner garden gnome may have decreed that nuclear energy is not Aryan and therefore to be rejected, but please do not speak for mine. :)

M. Möhling

> German press ... DOOMSDAY APOCALYPSE

When it's about anything less natural than, say, beeswax ointments or homeopathic dilutions we can't help but to channel feverishly our inner garden gnome, and that little guy decreed nuclear science not to be Aryan some time ago.

Let's have no less than Mr Trittin's take on a related topic:

Warum Naturschützer mit den Nazis gemeinsame Sache gemacht haben, ist da schon weniger rätselhaft: weil die Ideen der Naturschützer in mehrfacher Beziehung anschlussfähig waren an das Ideologienkonglomerat der Nazis, weil die Naturschützer vom "Dritten Reich" politisch zu profitieren hofften - und weil die Abwehrkräfte gegen totalitäre Demagogen unter den Naturschützern genauso schwach ausgeprägt waren wie im Rest des deutschen Bürgertums. Es entschuldigt nichts, wenn man darauf verweist, dass beileibe nicht nur die Naturschützer die Nationalsozialisten unterstützten - im Gegenteil. Der Beitrag der Natur- und Landschaftsschützer war weder marginal, noch war er ein "Betriebsunfall" der Naturschutzgeschichte. Es ist an der Zeit, dass die Debatte über Naturschutz und Nationalsozialismus die Zirkel der Fachhistoriker verlässt und öffentlich wird.


Perfectionistic Germans don't like uncertainess and phenomena they can not really calculate and fix. "Laissez faire", thats not the German way of living.
That is imho a main reason for the german engineering industry, famous for their high-end products, but it is also a reason for the hysteric fears regarding the uncertain and noncalculable risks of nuclear power.
Two sides of one medal.

Sorry, we are Germans, we can't change it. ;-)


Andrew, I think you're missing the point. Which in my opinion is not statistical probabilities (which may well speak in favour of nuclear energy) but the fact that this stuff will stay with us for thousands of years, with the potential of hurting in many ways. I realize that the public reaction in Germany seems panicky and a cause for ridicule in the eyes of other nations , but I don't care. I think we're right on this, and they are wrong.


An old low level story from the WashPost.
1. The figures are from the past. They do not answer the question what can happen in the future.
You cannot compare an uninhabitable area of 1000 km² in central Europe with mining deads in China
2. Think of higher security standards in China's coal mines before you use these figures to play down the risk of nuclear power.
3. There is always a solution politicians do not tell you.

Alex (the other one)

Very true. As good German citizen I am of course against nuclear power plants, but I am also very annoyed by how hysterical every discussion is led here. It is not possible to calmly weigh pros and cons of a matter; it's always a question of life and death and/or morality, and either you're FOR IT OR YOU'RE AGAINST IT AND DON'T YOU DARE GIVING ME ARGUMENTS FOR THE OTHER SIDE!!!!!!11!!eleven1!


Death toll is not the only thing you should look at. A big accident like Chernobyl turns large areas into deadly horror land (tm) for a few thousand years. Maybe Russia or the US do not care about loosing a few square kilometres, but smaller countries with a higher gal/girl per square meter count probably do.

I for myself am happy that the German media is drawing an apocalyptic picture out of this tragedy. It puts pressure on politicians and the power industry to speed up renewable energy generation projects. Being "not a final solution" for generations did not do much to push this forward.


Evacuating a densely populated area of many, many square kilometers for a generation or longer is a catastrophe in itself. Which other event short of a war can cause something like that?

Policies have been revised for much less.

I'm not much concerned about rising radiation levels but then again the danger of being killed by Islamist terrorists is probably even less.

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