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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.