Last week I wrote about the possibility of a new generation of small modular reactors, something a number of governments and businesses are betting on as a reponse to climate change and high energy prices. As is often the case, one of the things that came up in discussion was the safety of nuclear power. Is it safe? Can it ever be safe?
While the short answer to those questions is a pretty obvious no, the question ‘is it safe?’ doesn’t get us very far. We are surrounded by unsafe things every day. We learn to use them properly so that the risk is reduced.
Cars are an inherently unsafe technology, and as children we (hopefully) learn to navigate the streets in a way that reduces the risk. Running a pipeline of flammable gas into every house isn’t a safe thing to do, but we know how to run a gas grid responsibly to minimise risk. Even stairs are inherently risky: 700 people a year die from falling down the stairs in the UK alone, and 43,000 people are hospitalised in accidents involving stairs.
I hope this doesn’t sound glib in the context of nuclear power. The point is simply that danger and risk aren’t the same thing. Nuclear power is categorically unsafe. It relies on hugely complex systems handling radioactive material. It’s going to be dangerous. But if we learn from other dangerous things that we nevertheless use, maybe these are two more useful questions:
- Is nuclear power safer than the alternatives?
- Are we learning to reduce the risks?
First, we ought to consider nuclear power alongside all the other ways that we generate power. I’ve written about this before, and Our World in Data have helpfully graphed the relevant information.
Nuclear accidents are such vast and terrifying events that they loom large in the imagination – but we’re talking about a small number of very dramatic events. Coal power takes millions more lives than nuclear power does, but without ever making the iconic headlines. It’s attritional and ultimately far more destructive of human lives and wellbeing. Coal power needs to go in the bin.
Because they are so horrifying, it’s easy to overestimate the toll of nuclear disasters. The number of people killed directly by the Fukushima meltdown was zero, rising to one when you include a worker who died of cancer later. Sadly, a further 2,313 people died from heart attacks or disruptions to their medical care as a result of evacuation, which of course happened in the aftermath of an earthquake and a tsunami. Adding these indirect fatalities to the death rates still makes nuclear power 99.9% safer than brown coal.
If you are worried about the safety of energy, campaign against coal.
On the second question then: is the world getting better at managing the risks of nuclear? I mention Fukushima above because it’s the only nuclear accident this century and therefore the most closely studied. They really are quite few and far between. If we look at nuclear accidents over time, a pattern emerges. To illustrate, let me drop in a graph from Visualising Energy.
Of the ten incidents of nuclear meltdown, half happened in the early years of the technology. Lessons are learned, and despite the rapidly rising number of reactors around the world, there is no proportional rise in accidents. There are small incidents that aren’t on the graph, but years pass between serious accidents. After the little remembered failure of the East German Greifswald plant in 1989, it’s 22 years before the next accident at Fukushima – which only happened because a tsunami took out the cooling systems.
The pattern doesn’t tell us that nuclear is safe. What it tells us is that the technology has improved. That reactors are better designed, and those operating them have learned from past mistakes. The nuclear industry has a lot more experience.
This is not a comprehensive answer to the safety of nuclear power, not least because of the waste problem. Neither is it an endorsement of the technology – there are reasons why I advocate for renewable energy, demand management and storage. There are social and economic questions around nuclear power, and the urgency of climate change to keep in mind. But I hope that the points above shed a little light on the specific issue of safety.