October 20, 2015

Simplified dangers around energy

I wrote an answer on Quora about the dangers of energy to the environment.

I have written several articles that have looked at deaths per terawatt hour. Nuclear energy compares very favorably against other energy sources on that basis. I have looked at detailed medical studies and many other references. I have looked at it just looking at industrial and transportation deaths and including medical impacts. I have looked at short term and long term.

Let me simplify Deaths per TWH by energy source.

Particulates - incomplete burning is the driver of fossil health impact

Most energy now is from the fossil fuels. Oil, Natural Gas and coal. They are about 100 times more deadly than hydro, nuclear, solar and wind.

The reason is mainly particulates. They are not burned completely and this air pollution is like forcing babies, people with asthma and the elderly to smoke every day. The levels of particulate air pollution varies by the day and this change shows up in hospital admissions. The impact on health is by the hour and day. There were huge air pollution events in the past. The London fog killed 12000 people over several days when the weather caused air pollution to get trapped and people dropped dead with blue lips as they suffocated.

Coal kills in other ways. We are using 7 billion tons of coal. This is a hundred rail cars (thousands of tons) going every day into each coal plant. 40% of US freight transportation and 10% of trucking is moving coal. The fraction of rail and truck accidents is also a toll that directly links.

It is about 2-3 million deaths per year from air pollution. People do not die as fast as the London Fog of 1952 but they still die. The higher numbers are if the research that connects air pollution to increased heart disease are included.

Hydro is safer but there have been dam breaks. 171,000 dead from the Banqiao dam breaking.

Coal did lift people out of poverty in China and other countries. Poverty related disease kills 14 million people per year.

The Fukushima accident in Japan

1. If regulations were sensible and allowed the decades old reactors and reactor sites to be improved this could have been avoided. Burying the fuel tanks holding the oil would have allowed power to still go to the cooling and safety systems.

2. They should have located it farther inland. They could have built a 150 foot wall.

3. Just like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The radiation leaked over months. Deep ocean drillers now have caps to use within days of a pipe breaking in the ocean. Nuclear industry needs inflatable or rapidly (days to 2 weeks) deployable structures to contain radiation leakage. Stick them into big cargo planes and put them over damaged buildings or domes.

Nuclear 'waste' is incompletely reacted nuclear fuel.
There are reactor designs. (deep burn reactors) that can use up almost all of the fuel. There is also offsite processing in factories which can allow for all the fuel to be used. The actinides are the long lived 'waste'. Use those and the remaining waste has half lives of decades or less. Industry knows how to easily store waste for a hundred years. The amount of nuclear waste could then be stacked in a facility or on the reactor grounds in an area smaller than a basketball court. The waste from coal, oil and gas goes to your lungs via the air and into the water and is measured in billions of tons vs hundreds of tons.

Solar on roof tops does have people dieing and getting injured from falling off roofs. Roofing is the 6th most dangerous profession. However, as noted while nothing is perfect, the non-fossil fuel energy is 100 times safer.

If speed to address climate change is the issue. Then deal with the soot and particulates. Making things darker absorbs more heat. Soot stays in the atmosphere for days while CO2 stays for decades. Soot is twenty times cheaper to deal with and we could change the situation with soot in few years vs CO2 not having impact until after 2060 to 2100. If people were serious then they would target the soot on climate change. They would also stop the growth in coal and oil usage first and eliminate them before picking which of the non-air polluting energy like nuclear or solar they prefer.

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