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Radiation is terrifying to most people. And like most things, the less you actually know about it, the more frightening it can be.
Safety is certainly a critical issue, as the tragedy in Japan makes clear. However, so far the death toll from the current nuclear crisis in Japan is zero.
The chart above uses data compiled from various sources to compare the deaths per terawatt of energy produced. Deaths resulting from the production of nuclear power are over 4000 times less than the rate of death resulting from the production of energy from coal.
Writing in the Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Bernard Cohen, a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, puts the risk from nuclear power into context, comparing the relative risk of nuclear power to other activities. He used a one-in-a-million chance of increased risk of premature death as a standard. His calculations indicate that if one lived at the boundary of a nuclear power plant for five years, there would be an increased risk of premature death from nuclear radiation of one in a million. That risk would decline significantly as one moved further away from the plant.
Put differently, Cohen found that the risk of living next to a nuclear power plant is comparable to the risk incurred from riding 10 miles on a bicycle, riding 300 miles in an automobile, or riding 1,000 miles in an airplane.
In fact, Steven Chu, President Barack Obama’s energy secretary, has made it clear he doesn’t think nuclear power is dangerous per se. When asked to compare coal and nuclear energy in 2009, Chu responded: “I’d rather be living near a nuclear power plant.”
That being said, what happened in Japan reminds us that while nuclear doesn’t kill people on a yearly basis, it has the potential to be very lethal under certain circumstances. However, the idea of risk-free world is unrealistic because unanticipated vulnerabilities are inevitable in any complex system. Future technologies may reduce the chance of some terrible disaster but it won’t ever eliminate it completely. Like all other sources of energy, nuclear power entails some risk.
Myth 3: The spread of nuclear power has stalled in the U.S. due to a hostile regulatory environment.
Fact 3: Nuclear power has stalled because it is simply not profitable.
Many Americans argue that government regulations are the real reason why nuclear power is so expensive. As evidence, they point out that in France, where there is more opportunity to build nuclear power plants, nuclear power is safe and affordable.
It is true that France gets about 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. It is also true that the country has avoided a large-scale disaster due to the many safety regulations it has imposed, most of which are similar to regulations enacted in the U.S.
However, producing nuclear energy in France is not any cheaper than it is here. The chart above shows, in U.S. dollars, the parity between the costs of generating nuclear power in the United States (which has a relatively strict regulatory regime) and France (which has a relatively loose one).
The chart presents a range of estimates of the costs of nuclear reactors in the two countries gathered by Mark Cooper, a senior research fellow for economic analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at the Vermont Law School. As Cooper found, the ranges overlap: France’s estimated cost of a kilowatt of power is between $4,500 and $5,000; the United States’ estimated cost for this unit of power is between $4,000 and $6,000.