energy technology

What is the safest form of energy?

I was recently reading A Bright Future, which advocates for nuclear power as a response to climate change. It compares coal power and nuclear power and their relative risk. They helpfully distinguish between what is scary and what is dangerous, and how that can distort our perception of risk.

Nuclear power is relatively safe, but terrifying when it does go wrong. The fear looms large and many people are more wary of it than necessary. Coal power isn’t scary, but it is far more dangerous.

This is a point worth repeating when nuclear power stations are ahead of the queue for early shutdown, while coal power persists – as has happened in Germany and Japan. But one claim in the book did prompt a question. They say nuclear power is the “safest power ever”, and that I was reluctant to believe. Surely solar and wind are safer.

No energy source is risk free of course. Building wind turbines or installing solar on rooftops involves working at height. There’s always danger around high voltage cables and connections. But if we were to look at all the different ways to generate electricity, which would be the safest?

This graphic is from Our World in Data and you can see the sources there. And my hunch was right – while nuclear is spectacularly safer than coal, it’s still not quite at safe as wind and solar.

Add that to the list of benefits. Renewable energy is more democratic. It is cheaper at the point of use and increasingly at the point of construction. It is low carbon, and it is also safer.

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