Nuclear safety

Coal Pollution Likely Kills More People Annually Than Will Ever Die from Chernobyl Radiation

If you're worried about human health, nuclear wins easily over coal.



The meltdown and explosion of reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site in Ukraine 30 years ago was the worst nuclear accident in history. The reactor explosion and high radiation exposure killed 30 employees a few weeks after the explosion. The crippled plant spewed radioactive particiels across swathes of Europe for days afterwards. An increased risk of cancer is one of the chief concerns about exposure to nuclear radiation.

Greenpeace asserted in 2006 that Chernobyl's death toll largely from cancer would exceed 200,000. In 2010, a book by Russian researchers estimated the toll as 1 million people. In contrast, the World Health Organization (WHO) had concluded in 2005 that as many as 4,000 people might die of exposure to radiation from the Chernobyl accident.

In its 2008 review, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) noted that emergency and recovery workers and some children exposed to radiation were at higher risk. However, the vast majority of exposed people experienced radiation levels for a short time that were comparable to a few times higher than background radiation. The UNSCEAR review concluded, "Lives have been seriously disrupted by the Chernobyl accident, but from the radiological point of view, generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals should prevail."

A 2015 recent analysis by Israeli researcher Yehoshua Socol in the journal Dose-Reponse reconsiders the health consequences of the the Chernobyl accident. Socol argues that using even the most conservative linear no-threshold hypothesis to calculate cancer risk cannot distinguish any increase above normal background rates of cancer incidence and mortality. Assume 50,000 cancer deaths would result from Chernobyl's radiation. Socol notes, assuming current mortality rates, that over the next 50 years some 50 million people (plus or minus 2.5 million) will die of cancer in developed countries. Given the annual uncertainty of 50,000 deaths per year, it would be impossible to detect what number, if any, of those deaths can be attributed to exposures to Chernobyl.

Socol concludes that "unlike the widespread myths and misperceptions, there is little scientific evidence for carcinogenic, mutagenic or other detrimental health effects caused by the radiation in the Chernobyl-affected area, besides the acute effects and small number of thyroid cancers. On the other hand, it should be stressed that the above-mentioned myths and misperceptions about the threat of radiation caused, by themselves, enormous human suffering."

A fascinating December 2015 study by European researchers in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres asked what would the health consequences to Europe if the continent had closed all of its nuclear power plants and switched to coal-fired generation between 2005 and 2009? They calculated that there would have been an increase of around 100,000 premature deaths annually owing to increased air pollution (most of them due to cardiopulmonary illnesses). If these calculations are correct, the number of deaths attributable to coal would have been three times higher than even the worst-case Chernobyl cancer scenario being pushed by activists. If the WHO's estimates are right, coal kills at more than 1,000 times the rate of Chernobyl radiation.

Chernobyl was bad enough, but exaggerating its effects to further an unscientific campaign against nuclear power is ethically sleazy and may have the unintended consequence of killing more people than the activists claim they want to save.

NEXT: Mom Lets Her 3 Kids Wait in Car. FBI Agent Tells Her She Can't.

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  1. Yes, but digging for coal will not accidentally poke a hole in the Earth through to China. Think about it.

    1. What’s the fun in that? We need more holes to China.

      1. A hole straight to China would be useful. You drop a package in the hole, it falls for 21 minutes and then flies upwards for 21 minutes and pops out of the hole on this side at 0 mph where someone grabs it.

        A 42 minute ship time from China to the US would drive down prices of Chinese goods in the US (and US goods in China) quite a bit.

        1. The only route where that would work would be a direct core crossing, which doesn’t go to china, you’re looking at an oblique route, where you’re not going to be in freefall the whole time. Also the issue of the temperature and liquidity of the mass in between renders the option imporactical.

          1. And generally speaking, going straight through would come out under water.

            South America to parts of China is the only populated area it could ever work.

          2. The only route where that would work would be a direct core crossing,

            Why not a more tangential straight line?

            1. Ah. A zero-energy system. Got it. Carry on.

          3. Magma can melt steel beams.

        2. Are you talking an African swallow?

  2. I finished “End of Doom” this morning. I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know that is afraid of everything. Great read.

    1. Shillin’ for Big Ron today?

        1. So you’re doing it for free? What a rube.

        2. I would only shill for a Libertarian that paid me in bitcoin.

      1. How do you FH isn’t actually Ron? Has anyone ever seen them together?

    2. FH: You are obviously a discerning person of great intellect. That being said, thank you. 🙂

    3. I hear it’s one of Mercola’s favorite books.

    4. I read it when it first came out. Right up there with Matt Ridley.

      As to coal how many lives does it save by supplying cheap electricity. I do agree nuclear is a better solution for cheap energy but till then coal is a good fix.

      Ron love your work. Keep it up. Oh climate change (global warming), we can adapt. No big deal.

    1. Did he have to hire a Stalker to get inside the zone?

      1. Great movie!

    2. Where’s Blinkie?

  3. I get depressed every time I read about nuclear policy and public perceptions of nuclear power. Atomic power was one of the great achievements of the 20th century and we’ve been mostly pissing it away behind red tape and irrational fear for, what, four generations now?

    1. Or great great grand children will use it so no worries.

      1. Our.. need and edit key. it is late in Singapore

  4. I for one am disappointed in the severe lack of Soviet-themed super villains to emerge from the aftermath of Chernobyl.

    1. Where do you think Putin came from? Have you heard of him before 1986?

      1. There’s no evidence that he’s nuclear powered.

        1. Prove he’s not, though.

        2. There is also no evidence that he isn’t…

          1. Don’t be retarded guys. If Putin was nuclear powered he would have radiation symbols for eyes and his skin would glow red when he lifted cars over his head.

        3. Alexander Litvinenko would like to disagree, but he can’t.

      2. Iron Chest!

    2. I heard on thr BBC this morning that one guy was never found. So there is still a chance.

  5. Am I reading this correctly? Are you comparing the deaths from a single nuclear plant disaster to the deaths from thousands of coal-fired plants?

    Yes, I understand that Chernobyl is the worst nuclear accident in history, and its damage could be compared as equivalent to the same historical period using coal across an entire continent, but I don’t know that you were attempting that, Ronald. I’m merely giving you the benefit of doubt. You don’t even consider the scrubbing technologies available for coal-fired plants and the improvement in safety in new nuclear plants.

    This whole treatise is questionable.

    1. yep. how many lives have coal and other fossil fuel save. They have made our modern would. Nuclear will be our future fuel but for nor fossils will do. Renewables are a joke

      1. All methods of electricity generation are bad for the planet and should be banned, and everyone (except for a tiny handful of ruling Top Men) should have to go back to candles and lamps full of whale oil.

        1. everyone (except for a tiny handful of ruling Top Men) should have to go back to tallow or beeswax candles and lamps full of whale oil burning feces.

          FTFY. You have to use candles made from sustatinable, locally sourced beeswax from the finest rooftop beehives in Brooklyn (no animal products!) and of course you can’t use whale oil because if we hunt the whales to extinction your ancestors will be awfully sorry when the space probe shows up in 2286 to make contact with the humpbacks and they’re no longer around to answer.

          1. When our ancestors show up we will have solved the time travel problem, so many other pressing issues will also have been fixed.

            (As a linguist I’ve participated in discussions of this new use of ‘ancestors’ to mean ‘descendants’, but this is the first live instance I’ve seen…)

            1. Shit! *hangs head in shame at being called out for using the wrong word*

              EDIT BUTTON!

            2. …But are you a cunning linguist?

      2. They have made our modern would.

        I totally would our modern too…

        1. he us dyslexias need a voice too. plus my phone is small. I will try not to comment again but really enjoy enjoy reading all your comments.

    2. H: Point taken. However, consider these death rates from various energy sources:

      Energy Source Death Rate (deaths per TWh) CORRECTED

      Coal (elect, heat,cook ?world avg) 100 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
      Coal electricity ? world avg 60 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
      Coal (elect,heat,cook)? China 170
      Coal electricity- China 90
      Coal ? USA 15
      Oil 36 (36% of world energy)
      Natural Gas 4 (21% of world energy)
      Biofuel/Biomass 12
      Peat 12
      Solar (rooftop) 0.44 (0.2% of world energy for all solar)
      Wind 0.15 (1.6% of world energy)
      Hydro 0.10 (europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
      Hydro – world including Banqiao) 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
      Nuclear 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

      1. I agree but my point was coal has made the modern world and has benefited mankind more then it has hurt it. Nuclear is clearly better but do no forget the good fossil fuels have done.

        Ron love you writing please keep it up.

      2. Thanks for the response, Ron.

      3. Thanks, Ron.

        This info was exactly what I wanted.

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  7. What happened at Chernobyl was absolutely not an “accident”. They ran a moronic poorly conceived test that involved shutting off all safety systems in the reactor. They also had not bothered to build a containment dome or even a non-flammable roof. The crazy experiment went horribly wrong – the core ended up in the parking lot and control rods fell everywhere.

    Nothing at Chernobyl was accidental nor does it has anything to do with civilian nuclear power in the U.S., Japan, or Western Europe.

    1. Are you saying that Soviet technology is not a good benchmark for evaluating American or German power plants? Crazy talk!

      *puts down 1983 copy of Samuelson’s Macroeconomics*

    2. This X 1,000,000

      Their reactors also have control rods that went in from the side while American reactor designs have the control rods going in from the top, so that as a fail safe the rods can be dropped in using gravity.

      It’s always a good idea to insert your rods from the top…

      1. Missionary position engineering?

        1. Or doggystyle, pile driver, leap frog…

      2. It’s always a good idea to insert your rods from the top…

        Huh? Cowgirl, reverse or not, can be a fun position.

  8. One of the fundamental principles of science is that every hypothesis must be falsifiable. If a hypothesis is unfalsifiable it is just argle bargle and not science and can safely be hand waived away. Of course this holds true for any assertion made in debate.

    The warmists have discovered this and learned from it over decades. First they made falsifiable assertions – their hypothesis and numerous predictions of doom – which were then falsified. Their hypothesis has evolved into an unfalsifiable one with a smattering of falsifiable and unfalsifiable assertions of doom. It is pathetic, really.

    The nuclear power opponents and the anti-GMO people are equally guilty.

    Also comes to mind: “jobs created or saved”. If I wasn’t so tired from riding a tractor all morning I am sure I could think of a thousand others.

    1. Oh…also the assertions about deaths from coal both in Europe and the ones Obama’s greenie appointees made here in the US.

    2. One of my favorites:

      ” Sure things got worse after we enacted our policies, but think how much worse it would have been if we hadn’t!”

      *Said after every democrat failure ever, in other words after every policy they ever enacted.

      1. Which brings us to this:…

        I have heard that you should not attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence but I have a very difficult time believing this isnt deliberate. A way to seriously damage the economy and harm millions of Americans has proven effective and he just can’t help but employ it again because that’s the kinda guy he is.

        1. What could possibly go wrong?!


    3. If I wasn’t so tired from riding a tractor all morning

      Masturbation euphemism?

      1. Damn. I thought I could slip that one in there and no one would notice.

        1. Another masturbation euphemism?

          1. Yes, but deliberate this time.

            1. *ALL morning*?

              I may have found my new god.

    4. Also comes to mind: “jobs created or saved”.

      “spending cuts”

      “investments in our future”

  9. I have just one question: what is a particiel?

    1. A very small amount of material in transit by a shipping company?

      *parcel + particle = particiel

    2. From the French: “sky party”

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    1. You’re one of those evil shills for Big Coal, aren’t you?

  11. Yeah, but how does it compare to Rainbow Power and Unicorn Farts, huh smarty pants? /derp

    1. You never heard about the Rainbow Family and their genocidal funk?

  12. That what infuriated me about about coverage about the Sendai Tsunami. It was all Fukushima all the time. 20 000 people dead, either drowned or crushed to death? Nope, somebody might get cancer 10 years from now. Half a million displaced and homeless, many dropping dead from stress, heartbreak, and suicide every single day? Hey, this cabbage set off a geiger counter! Panic in the fish markets of California!

    Fuck the media.

    1. This X 1,000,000 too.

      The media’s coverage of pretty much anything involving radiation or nuclear power is God awefull. They should be ashamed of themselves. If they were capable of felling shame, which they aren’t.

  13. A 2015 recent analysis by Israeli researcher Yehoshua Socol in the journal Dose-Response

    Excellent band name.

  14. Warty Kills More People Annually Than Will Ever Die from Chernobyl Radiation…

    that still doesn’t mean I want a Chernoybl in my backyard.

    1. Because if it’s anything like having Warty your “backyard”, the survivors may envy the dead.

  15. Environmentalists should be praying for more Chernobyls, given the way the exclusion zone has turned into a massive wildlife refuge.

    There are species thriving there that were nearly extinct in Europe prior to the Chernobyl accident.

  16. Environmentalists should be praying for more Chernobyls, given the way the exclusion zone has turned into a massive wildlife refuge.

    There are species thriving there that were nearly extinct in Europe prior to the Chernobyl accident.

    1. There are species thriving there that were nearly extinct in Europe prior to the Chernobyl accident.

      One of which is the Server Squirrel.

      1. Chernobyl Server Squirrel:…..dzilla.jpg

  17. When we finally discover near-zero-point energy, the coal dust pollution will be cleaned up in a few years. The radioactive nuclear waste will plague us for millennia.

    1. Of course, with infinite zero-point energy, I bet we can figure out a way to deal with nuclear waste, as well.

      1. For a small fee, I would be glad to fling it into the sun for you. (One of the many ways I’ll make a vast fortune after I build my space elevator)

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  19. Don’t forget this nugget from Tubiana et al., 2009 Radiology 251, 13 (DOI: “The Chernobyl accident showed that overestimating radiation risks could be more detrimental than underestimating them. Misinformation partially led to traumatic evacuations of about 200 000 individuals, an estimated 1250 suicides, and between 100 000 and 200 000 elective abortions outside the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.”

  20. Bailey is up to his old tricks again. His headline is unsupported by the article. I don’t know why Reason keeps publishing his confused, opinionated, and deceptive rants.

    Alpha particles and transuranic elements are very dangerous and long-lived. There can be no assurance that these very toxic substances simply cannot be safely disposed or stored. Nuclear power plants are not insurable because of these risks, and are impossible to finance without government subsidies.

    I believe there were great numbers of people harmed by Chernobyl and Fukushima. These can take generations to manifest, and are often attributed to other causes, or considered to be idiopathic. Since these incidents occurred overseas under Statist governments, we will likely never know the truth.

    The libertarian thing to do is to encourage all feasible power sources to compete on a level playing field. No subsidies, no mandates, and no taxes for imaginary “social costs” to cover “externalities”. (The principal “externality” or “social cost” that burdens our society is cupid politicians.)

    1. Pretty sure regulation plays a more significant role in nuclear funding than youre making out here, at least in the US. The whole govt hasnt approved a plan to build one in 50 years thing has a funny way of spooking investors.

    2. Alpha particles are blocked by skin. Yes, ingestion isn’t recommended, but also easily detected and generally fairly local.

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