MacKay: risk assessment for energy-related severe accidents


We made the mistake of lumping nuclear energy in with nuclear weapons, as if all things nuclear were evil. I think that’s as big a mistake as if you lumped nuclear medicine in with nuclear weapons. —Patrick Moore, former Director of Greenpeace International

UPDATE: I’ve bumped the timestamp on this post to 2012 for (my) ease of access.

In his marvelous “Sustainable energy without the hot air” David Mackay’s Chapter 24 Nuclear? examines nuclear power. From that chapter I extracted the memorable Moore quote above, and the graphic at left.

For my own reference I wanted to include David’s computation of deaths per GWy (gigawatt-year), which he has extracted from two of the studies we’ve already referenced (ExternE, and the Paul Scherrer Institute).

The graphic at left has translated those studies into David’s preferred units of GWy. Here’s an excerpt from David’s analysis of comparative energy generation risks:

(…) When quantifying the public risks of different power sources, we need a new unit. I’ll go with “deaths per GWy (gigawatt-year).” Let me try to convey what it would mean if a power source had a death rate of 1 death per GWy. One gigawatt-year is the energy produced by a 1 GW power station, if it operates flat-out for one year. Britain’s electricity consumption is roughly 45 GW, or, if you like, 45 gigawatt-years per year. So if we got our electricity from sources with a death rate of 1 death per GWy, that would mean the British electricity supply system was killing 45 people per year. For comparison, 3000 people die per year on Britain’s roads. So, if you are not campaigning for the abolition of roads, you may deduce that “1 death per GWy” is a death rate that, while sad, you might be content to live with. Obviously, 0.1 deaths per GWy would be preferable, but it takes only a moment’s reflection to realize that, sadly, fossil-fuel energy production must have a cost greater than 0.1 deaths per GWy – just think of disasters on oil rigs; helicopters lost at sea; pipeline fires; refinery explosions; and coal mine accidents: there are tens of fossil-chain fatalities per year in Britain.

So, let’s discuss the actual death rates of a range of electricity sources. The death rates vary a lot from country to country. In China, for example, the death rate in coal mines, per ton of coal delivered, is 50 times that of most nations. Figure 24.11 shows numbers from studies by the Paul Scherrer Institute and by a European Union project called ExternE, which made comprehensive estimates of all the impacts of energy production. According to the EU figures, coal, lignite, and oil have the highest death rates, followed by peat and biomass-power, with death rates above 1 per GWy. Nuclear and wind are the best, with death rates below 0.2 per GWy. Hydroelectricity is the best of all according to the EU study, but comes out worst in the Paul Scherrer Institute’s study, because the latter surveyed a different set of countries.

David then moves on to one of my favorite topics, which he terms Mythconceptions, which include “nuclear involves huge amounts of concrete and steel whose creation involves huge CO2 pollution” and “Isn’t the waste from nuclear reactors a huge problem?” For those discussions please visit the site and buy the book! Which is now available in a Kindle version for only USD $27, the best book value I have ever purchased.

For more on Dr. MacKay and the book please see my Oct 2009 post.

2 thoughts on “MacKay: risk assessment for energy-related severe accidents

  1. It’s also available as a free download on the site and there’s also the possibility to browse the parts that someone wants to read most. I appreciated that very much.

    I think this book gives a very good overview of the possibilities and choices that we have.

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