If the Terrorists Attack Our Ports It Probably Will Not Be A Nuclear Attack

A nightmare attack on our ports.

Many anti-nuclear power people repeat a few of mistakes frequently. There are other mistakes but this article will focus on the ones below. Here is a quote from the typically misguided ideas.

In May 2006, the House overwhelmingly approved by a 421 to 2 vote, legislation to provide $7.4 billion in spending on new port security inspectors, nuclear weapons screening and the development of an automated system to pinpoint high-risk cargo.

The economic impact of even a single nuclear terrorist attack on a major U.S. seaport would be very great. In the three plausible scenarios examined, a successful attack would create disruption of U.S. trade valued at $100-200 billion, property damage of $50-500 billion, and 50,000 to 1,000,000 lives could be lost. Global and long-term effects, including the economic impacts of the pervasive national and international responses to the nuclear attack, though not calculated, are believed to be substantially greater.

1. They make a big deal about potential cost and damage from various forms of nuclear enabled terrorist attack.

There are several wrong assumptions in that idea. One of the big ones is that there are not non-nuclear attacks that can be as damaging and deadly as a nuclear attack. The non-nuclear attacks are more easily accomplished and do not require taking years developing or accessing nuclear weapons.

2. They assume that not having commercial nuclear power will make them safer and eliminate certain risks or costs

Nuclear weapons existed many years before commercial nuclear power.
In 1945, there were nuclear weapons. Perhaps you heard about them. They had some obscure use at places called Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Mid-1950s the first commercial nuclear reactors. On June 27, 1954, the USSRs Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant became the world’s first nuclear power plant to generate electricity for a power grid, and produced around 5 megawatts of electric power. The world’s first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall in Sellafield, England was opened in 1956 with an initial capacity of 50 MW (later 200 MW). The first commercial nuclear generator to become operational in the United States was the Shippingport Reactor (Pennsylvania, December, 1957).

Almost every country that has nuclear weapons gotten the weapons before they got commercial nuclear power.

There are now thousands of nuclear weapons. If the anti-nuclear people got their wish (which they won’t) that all commercial reactors get shut down and no new ones get built, then the nuclear weapons and nuclear material still exist and are still a threat. Thus showing one aspect of the lack of correlation between nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear power. If the nuclear power plants get shutdown then would the US not have to secure its ports ? The US still would have to secure its ports. So how does the $7.4 billion for port security (voted for in 2006) count against commercial nuclear power ?

Does North Korea have commercial nuclear power ? No. But it has six atomic bombs or at least the material for that many.
Iran has the centrifuges running to get its nuclear bombs, but does it have a commercial nuclear reactor yet ? No.

The scenarios that anti-nuclear power people talk about is always a maximal super optimized attack against New York by terrorists. Against every other place (other than perhaps Tokyo) there is not that much concentrated and valuable population and property.

They never bother to make the terrorist connection between 5% enriched uranium and 90%+ weapons grade material. They ignore how hard it is to get from low enrichment to high enrichment. Iran, an entire nation, is taking decades to get sufficient enriched material.

How about farming and fertilizer ? Those are seemingly benign activities and material. No one seems to be protesting those things as being deadly.

Af fertilizer bomb was used for the Oklahoma City Bombing.

After the Oklahoma city bomb

Timothy McVeigh used a fertilizer bomb. Do the deaths and damage from that count against farming, trucks and fertilizer. Why not ? It is a tighter correlation than between nuclear bombs and nuclear power.

At 9:02 a.m. CST, the Ryder truck, containing in excess of 6,200 pounds (2,800 kg) of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, nitromethane, and diesel fuel mixture, detonated in front of the north side of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The effects of the blast were equivalent to over 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) of TNT and could be heard and felt up to 55 miles (89 km) away. The attack claimed 168 lives and left over 800 people injured.

How about a scenario where a supertanker which can hold up to 500,000 tons is loaded with fertilizer explosive ? Optionally they mix in some radiological material from some hospital or other source or just mine some uranium or thorium and have that on the supertanker.

The explosion could be even bigger than the hypothetical nuclear terrorist attack.

But that kind of thing has not happened before right?


The Halifax Explosion occurred on Thursday, December 6, 1917 when the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, was devastated by the huge detonation of the SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship, fully loaded with wartime explosives, which accidentally collided with a Norwegian ship, the SS Imo in “The Narrows” section of the Halifax Harbour. The picture at the beginning of this article was the mushroom cloud from the Halifax explosion in 1917. About 2,000 people were killed by debris, fires, or collapsed buildings and it is estimated that over 9,000 people were injured. This is still the world’s largest man-made accidental explosion. All buildings and structures covering nearly 2 square kilometres (500 acres) along the adjacent shore were obliterated, including those in the neighbouring communities of Richmond and Dartmouth. The explosion caused a tsunami in the harbour and a pressure wave of air that snapped trees, bent iron rails, demolished buildings, grounded vessels, and carried fragments of the Mont-Blanc for kilometres.

2,653 tons of wartime explosives.

According to estimates, roughly $35 million Canadian dollars in damages resulted (in 1917 dollars; adjusted for inflation, this is about CAD$500 million in 2007 dollars)

Terrorists do not have to do it the hard way.

A Real Nightmare Scenario

Piracy is in the news.

On November 15, 2008, Somali pirates seized the supertanker MV Sirius Star, 450 miles off the coast of Kenya. The ship was carrying around $100 million worth of oil and had a 25-man crew. This marked the largest tonnage vessel ever seized by pirates.

The Piracy Reporting Centre of the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) stated in 2004 that more pirate attacks in that year occurred in Indonesian waters (70 of 251 reported attacks) than in the waters of any other country. Of these attacks, a majority occurred in the Straits of Malacca. They also stated that of the attacks in 2004, oil and gas tankers and bulk carriers were the most popular targets with 67 attacks on tankers and 52 on bulk carriers.

MV Sirius Star is an oil tanker owned and operated by Vela International Marine. With a length overall of 1,090 feet (330 m) and a capacity of 2 million barrels (320,000 m**3) of crude oil, the ship is classified as a very large crude carrier or VLCC.

If you recall 9/11: 19 Islamist terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda hijacked four commercial passenger jet airliners.

The two if by sea plan would seem to be terrorists infiltrate to get control of tanker or bulk carriers in a way that it is not known to not be under trusted control. Then take fertilizer or other explosive cargo from several fairly large ships into multiple ports around the world and detonate them at the same time.

The world consumption of fertilizer is about 150 million tons per year. Ammonium nitrate fertilizer is one of the most common fertilizers. Major fertilizer consumer countries are China, the United States, Brazil, India and Southeast Asian countries consumed two third of global potash fertilizer, but the output of potash fertilizer in these countries accounted for only 9.0 per cent of global output. So most fertilizer is shipped. More than 1.5 million tons of ammonium nitrate was sold in the United States in 2003. Fertilizer sales remain unrestricted across much of the United States as of 2004

If you look back at the ingredients in the Oklahoma bomb, they had fertilizer and diesel fuel. I think middle eastern terrorists can get their hands on shiploads of diesel fuel. As the piracy statistics show there are about 60-70 attacks on oil tankers each year. As noted there are usually only 12-24 person crews on the tankers and bulk carriers. Plus if Iran was backing some kind of terrorist attack, I believe they have significant amounts of oil and enough oil in tankers.

I think there is means, motive and opportunity. Multiple ship attacks that each could be ten to two hundred times as powerful as the Halifax explosion. (2600 tons of explosive in 1917 that killed 2000 and injured 9000 and devastated Halifax) I leave it as an exercise to tally the financial impact and death toll of larger attacks against multiple port or coastal cities.

In writing this up under the assumption that either places like Homeland security have already thought of it or that they should read this and consider what needs to be done. [Marines, Navy and coast guard apparently are aware of these scenarios for a few decades and apparently have measures in place to prevent it] It probably is more important than making sure people take off their shoes for airport screening. The terrorists already thought up the plane hijacking for 9-11. Hijacking ships or trucks and trains would not be a stretch.


Ammonium nitrate at wikipedia

Ammonium Nitrate disaster list at wikipedia

As noted by a commenter: the Texas City Disaster is highly relevant

The cargo ship Grandcamp was being loaded on April 16, 1947 when a fire was detected in the hold: at this point, 2600 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in sacks were already aboard. The captain responded by closing the hold and pumping in pressurised steam. One hour later, the ship exploded, killing several hundred people and setting fire to another vessel, the High Flyer, which was moored 250 metres away and which contained 1050 tonnes of sulfur and 960 tons of ammonium nitrate. The Grandcamp explosion also created a powerful earthshock and knocked two small planes flying at 1,500 feet (460 m) out of the sky. The High Flyer exploded the next day, after having burned for sixteen hours. 500 tonnes of ammonium nitrate on the quayside also burned, but without exploding, probably because it was less tightly packed.

Ammonium nitrate can explode even without mixing with diesel and other agents. Ammonium nitrate is 0.42 times as explosive as TNT by weight.

New U.S. Coast Guard regulations on the shipment of ammonium nitrate went into effect July 1, 2004. These require that each vessel or facility have a security plan, vessel or facility maintenance and security records, records of training, drills on breaches of security, establishment and training of a facility security officer, a vessel security officer for each vessel and a commanding security officer over all vessels. Vessel and facility security systems must be installed. Security training is required. The regulations list ammonium nitrate as a “Certain Dangers Cargo,” which necessitates continuously patrolled restricted areas. The bottom line is that some port facilities have decided to discontinue handling ammonium nitrate, and some barge lines have decided to discontinue shipping the product due to the increased cost and liability (source of information for transportation is Green Markets Dealer Report, October 11, 2004).

The above procedures still seem insufficient if the vessel was pirated or had a terrorist crew.

A ship in 2007 with ammonium nitrate, (undisclosed amount) but the ship could hold 3000 tons, caught fire off the Australian Port of Newcastle and had visited six other ports.

Austrialian news covered it and people were upset that if the fire had gotten out of control that it would devastated Newcastle

Chuck Devore, now California state assemblyman, wrote about an ammonium nitrate ship bomb in his novel “China Attacks” as means to damage the Panama Canal for months. Chuck is aware of the risks and is in a position to let others in California and Federal government be aware of the need for more action.

Terrorist attack by sea scenario at the Foreign Policy Research Institute

In 2003, Greek authorities seized the Baltic Sky, loaded with either 750 tons of TNT or 750 tons of industrial-grade ammonium nitrate-based explosives and 140,000 detonators, renewed concerns of terrorists using ships as bombs to blow up port cities.

There was not much public discussion of the incident by officials of the USA or the Greeks.

39 thoughts on “If the Terrorists Attack Our Ports It Probably Will Not Be A Nuclear Attack”

  1. Michael Rule brings up the logical point that you are comparing a number of deaths caused by an operating (or dysfunctional) nuclear plant with the installation costs of solar power.
    Once a pv system is installed, the probability of it causing death is extraordinarily small. On the other hand, Fukushima and Cherynobyl show us that the danger of a Nuclear power plant continues indefinitely after construction, in fact the potential for leaks and other failures increase as the nuclear facility ages. Aging equipment and reduced inspections due to cost-cutting by utilities may combine to produce disastrous results, as many plants are approaching or have exceeded their 40 year design-life. Aging solar installations don't really present much danger.

  2. I am not sure, don't have time to look right now either. But I was lead to believe that batteries are an integral part of solar systems. If so what are they made of? What are the dangers with their manufacturing, handling by owner, and disposal? What are the possible long term affects of the their disposal?

  3. Ok so roof top solar may or may not be as dangerous as Chernobyl. Who cares if they are even close? What does that matter, when neither source supplies that much percent of power to us.
    How about topping this danger with any of your nuclear power worst scenario events.
    The World Health Organization estimates that urban air pollution causes 800,000 premature deaths each year. Fossil fuels burned by motor vehicles contribute 90 percent of urban air pollution, including lead, carbon monoxide, ozone and suspended particulate matter. The World Health Organization reports that 3 million people now die each year from the effects of air pollution.
    This does not include mining deaths, radon from coal ashes, or the increased radiation from the sun as these things deplete the ozone.
    It serves no one to compare nuclear to roof-top solar other then to say it is not necessarily much more dangerous as things stand today.
    It is better to compare it to the other mass energy production used today. Which is obviously dangerous to everybody's health on a daily basis. No earth quake, no tsunami, no terrorist attack needed. Just start up your car and drive it for a few minutes!!

  4. Hm, seems you might have to revise your assessment in some time now.

    I still see a couple of flaws there… there is a very high uncertainty on a lot of those numbers – i.e. "Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment" comes to nearly a million deaths caused by Chernobyl — a number vastly different from the 4000 predicted. Another thing is, that the half-life of Cs-137 is about 30 years – it's a long time to cause an unknown amount of deaths, that will look just like cancer or just like even something completely else.

    There's another metholodical problem. Plutonium has a half-life time of 24000 years, there are fission products with even longer half-life times. It gets a bit philosophical to ask if humanity will live long enough to see those decay, but as we have seen with the most recent disaster (or will see, as may be), the stored used fuel rods turned out to be a major problem, and freed radiation can stay a problem for the next couple of ten thousand years to come.

    So how did you account for the deaths caused by this over the period of the next 10000 years?

  5. It is perfectly fine to cobble together an expected estimate of deaths from solar installation using existing statistics from other roofing and electrical jobs. Of course, this would be a prediction that could be tested against the actual data on the hazards of roof-top solar, once more data become available.

  6. If a risk is obvious, personally avoidable by taking care, and taken on voluntarily, it is considered ethically acceptable, even if statistically some level of deaths is pretty much certain.

    So solar roofing risks, despite being objectively much higher, are much more acceptable than nuclear risks for most people.

    Coal is a special case – we’ve lived with it’s risks for centuries, and pollution from it has already been cut substantially – so people assume the risks are acceptable.

  7. 1handclapping, you wrote

    “That’s a pretty big risk to offset even if its likelihood is low, and that’s been my point all along —
    Low probability uncertainties with big consequences should not simply be ignored.”

    But why restrict ourself to nuclear in that case. The probability that two fully fueled 747 could crash over a packed sports stadium killing everyone is non zero. Should we then decide to stop airplaines alltogheter, even though they during regular operation is the safest mode of transportation?

    What about CDC and USAMRIID where they research extremely dangerous diseases, the probability that ebola could get out of one of those facilities is also non zero. Shud we then shut down all research on dangerous diseases?

    What about terrorist highjacking and blowing up a LNG tanker in new york harbor? Stop natural gas alltogheter?

    What about chemical plants, oil refineries or what about the energy source that has caused the most devestating disasters of them all, hydropower?

    Is it only nuclear that has to be perfectly safe? Or do you want to ban any industrial activity that has a risk of large disasters no matter how small the probability?

    You can not find any serious nuclear engineer that would agree with the statement that chernobyl wasnt the absolute worst case plausible scenario.

  8. Yes, I have seen the 2004 study.

    It assumes super-terrorists making a successful attack on Indian Point and then assuming that optimal weather and optimal everything else for maximum casualties.

    I do not believe the starting point of the scenario. Successful hijacking of a plane [Since 9-11 pilots do not come out of the cockpit no matter how many passengers or crew are killed. If you are worried about terrorists doing this then do not secure all of the rich targets in the USA or other places but kill terrorists like Al Qaeda which has been done. thus no major terrorist operations] and running it into a reactor without being shotdown.:
    The report considered an attack on
    the Biblis B PWR by a small jet (Airbus A320) or medium-sized jet (Airbus A300) travelling at speeds from 225 to 394 miles per hour, where the peak speed of 394 mph
    was determined through the use of simulators. GRS concluded that for an event in which the jet did not penetrate the containment, but the resulting vibrations caused a primary coolant leak, and the control room was destroyed by debris and fire (a condition similar to a station blackout), then control of the sequence of events would be “ uncertain.”
    Biblis B was designed for protection against the crash of a 1960s-era Starfighter jet and
    as a result is equipped, like most German reactors, with a double containment. In contrast, Indian Point 2 and 3, while of the same 1970s vintage as Biblis B, were not
    designed to be resistant to airplane crashes, and do not have double containments.

    I do not believe the radiations deaths figures that are quoted or the resultant cancer deaths.

    the $2 trillion is based on the 99.9 percentile case of a BS scenario. 95% was $1 trillion.

    Nuclear plant security is adequate

    Anti-Radiation drugs far (5000 times ) better than potassium iodide are being developed.

    Spalling concrete with material going deeper into the floor concrete and the ground does not create the bad scenarios that you are postulating.

    Indian Points is safe

    Independent safety evaluation came of Indian Point conclusion was it is safe

    Indian points will stay open

    The full independent indian point safety report is here

    Pg127-133 are the relevant part for the airplane strike scenario.

    Visual inspection of the concrete for signs of cracking and spalling are required by the
    American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Section 11 IWL Code and are
    performed regularly. The structural integrity of the buildings and its leak tightness are
    regularly verified by testing. The buildings were pressurized to 54 pounds per square inch
    (psi) (115 percent of the accident rating) – Unit 2 was tested in March 1971 and Unit 3 in
    January 1975. Integrated leak rate tests are performed periodically to pressurize the
    containment buildings to 47 psig and measure total leakage. During these tests, the
    building expands several inches and the concrete is therefore expected to experience
    minor cracking due to the physical growth of the structure. Visual inspections are
    performed during and following the test to observe for unexpected cracking or spalling of
    the concrete. The last tests were performed on Unit 2 in 2006 and on Unit 3 in 2005 with
    no structural concerns identified. More details on this issue are contained in Appendix 3.

    Numerous tests and analyses by research organizations conclude that the
    large commercial aircraft and turbojet engines in use today would not
    penetrate a containment structure like that at IPEC, even on a direct hit at 350 mph. Structural integrity and leak tightness of the buildings would be maintained. Furthermore, the energy of impact would be absorbed by the structure, causing only minor movement, and would not dislodge or damage equipment on the interior of the building.

  9. A few responses to your comments, BW:

    “Here is an 88 page study from 2005 about a severe meltdown analysis Proper design even in a full meltdown case does not get through more than 8cm of the concrete.”

    And here is a relevant excerpt from that very same report:

    “Despite the uncertainties in the heat transfer rates, the maximum possible ablation depth
    can be calculated by assuming that all the heat from the melt goes to the melting of the
    concrete. However, this method fails if spalling, or cracking of the concrete surface,
    takes place. Spalling has been observed in fire tests of concrete, when the water in the
    concrete pores evaporates rapidly, increasing the pressure inside the concrete and
    generating stresses that exceed the strength of the concrete. Spalling of concrete under
    the pouring of molten material has not been studied systematically. In this work, an
    experimental facility to examine this phenomenon has been designed.”

    Note that this possible (and perhaps likely, based on observations cited in the excerpt itself) failure mode is yet to be studied, in fact a significant part of the report is devoted to a proposal for a research facility and methodology for such study.

    And here is an excerpt from the NRC report you cite regarding:

    “Severe accident analysis for five nuclear plant models”

    which you seem to imply supports your argument that these accidents cover the gamut of worst case possibilities:

    “4.6 Containment Performance
    The lack of information about many of the physical phenomena that determine the performance of a containment system in a severe accident situation is such that only educated guesses can be made for some sequences that might make significant contributions to risk. Although the large number of event trees developed in the containment analyses is indicative of what was hypothesized by the analysts, the amount and quality of information concerning a number of key phenomena that determine behavior at branch points are low. The difficulty of arriving at a result with significant confidence is illustrated by two examples. In the analysis of the performance of the Mark I containment used in early BWRs, the experts in the original study predicted a large conditional probability of early failure. In the second study a different group of experts produced a bimodal distribution because part of the panel concluded that the probability of early failure was high, and part considered it low. A second example is the calculation of risk produced by postulated direct containment heating (DCH). In the first study, the calculated risk due to DCH for PWRs with large dry containments was a major contributor to the total risk. In the second version, its contribution was significantly less. In neither case had there been a major change in the information about relevant physical phenomena available at the time of the first study. Further, we find no consideration of the impact of ex-vessel steam explosions on early containment failure. There is little unambiguous guidance here for a licensee performing an IPE.”

    Finally, there is the September 2004 study, “Chernobyl on the Hudson? The Health and Economic Impacts of a Terrorist Attack at the Indian Point Nuclear Plant,” by Dr. Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists, which, using the NRC’s own analysis method, found that a worst-case accident or attack at the Indian Point nuclear plant 35 miles north of New York City could cause up to 43,700 immediate fatalities and up to 518,000 long-term cancer deaths. Such a release could cost up to $2.1 trillion, and would force the permanent relocation of 11.1 million people.

    That’s a pretty big risk to offset even if its likelihood is low, and that’s been my point all along —

    Low probability uncertainties with big consequences should not simply be ignored.

  10. Yes, society finds the historical distribution of 55 million deaths per year worldwide overall and worker deaths of 1 in 1000 tolerable so long as those deaths are good old fashioned coal mining, sweetly familiar traffic accidents, air pollution from coal, oil and natural gas and industrial accidents that are not radiation leaks from a nuclear plant, radiation from coal burning and natural gas are okay.

    Falls from roofs are deemed to be the fault of sloppiness from the installer or roofer or worker.

    People should consider at least better options in the category of solar power. Concentrated solar power and stringing metallic balloons over cropland as cheaper, faster and safer (like Coolearth).

  11. Based on the work death numbers presented, it appears that both society and at least some workers find up to 1/1000 worker deaths per year tolerable, given the benefits.

    So the issue is probably moot to the question of whether society should/will adopt widespread use of solar roofs or nuclear power.

  12. 1handclapping

    you seem to be the one speculating, TMI did demonstrated what a meltdown is like. Sure it was a partial meltdown but a full meltdown isnt expected to be much worse. In addition the phebus facility has given plenty of real data on severe accident. How the core material behaves, how the filter behaves etc.

    A LWR meltdown cant eat its way through the containment down into the water table. Thats china syndrome fantasy and not reality.

    The scenarios required for a light water reactor to cause a disaster even close to chernobyl are so unlikely that they might as well be considered impossible. Using them as argument against nuclear power is no more reasonable than arguing against airplanes due to the slim risk that two fully fueled 747 might crash over a packed sports stadium killing everyone.

    If we expand the conversation to more advanced reactors like pebble bed reactors then the risk of disaster is more or less eliminated since a meltdown isnt even physically possible.

  13. I did not claim that there would be worse accidents only that there *could* be worse accidents.

    I am well aware that a nuclear reactor is not a nuclear bomb. I am also well aware that a nuclear reactor’s core in meltdown is quite capable of acting like a thermite bomb on steroids.

    With the kind of heat this molten core could reach, it has (and I *have* read the research papers) only been conjectured just exactly what could contain such a core — to the best of my knowledge there is no actual experimental data proving containment under these conditions. And yes, I’ve read the papers that argue that such a meltdown must be inherently self-limiting, but those are not proof, just arguments.

    We do have the example of Fermi’s first tiny reactor though, in case there’s any doubt that meltdown is a possibility.

    Scenarios proposed by nuclear power opponents suggest that if molten core like that were to hit a water table, the resulting radioactive vapor release could easily lead to the deaths of thousands of people.

    I used to read heavily in this area, but it’s been awhile and I have no idea of how much of this stuff has made it to the Web — my past experience in almost any field has been that most research older than about a decade is invisible to the Web and most of the stuff I’m recalling is at least 20 years old, but it seemed to be common knowledge then.

    Frankly, I’m pretty surprised that you’re questioning whether a nuclear reactor failure could produce a major human catastrophe. I was certainly not under the impression that anyone in the nuclear community really doubts that this is possible. They may believe it’s highly unlikely but that’s not the same as impossible.

  14. Where is your data 1handclapping ? where is your proof ? You make assertions but have shown no substance.

    In the article there is the links to the historical data and peer reviewed reports which shows that nuclear power has been safer.

    You claim there will be worse accidents with nuclear power than Chernobyl. Where is the analysis to justify this claim based on the existing nuclear reactors and based on new build ?

    What are the scenarios where containment domes are breached ?

    I have presented data and analysis you have presented squat.

    My “speculation” was to consider safety is coming soon that will even make nuclear bomb detonations a lot less fatal. There is no way that a nuclear power plant can go off like even a small nuclear bomb because nuclear bomb material is enriched to 90+% and nuclear plant material to about 5%.

  15. Your response to my argument is based on so much that is speculative for its justification, that I suspect you’re just *DETERMINED* to believe that nuclear is safer, but where is your analysis of that “poorer state” you’re writing off?

    How many thousands of deaths from *ONE* incident does it take wipe out 20 years of PV installation accidental deaths? You claim to be making a rational case, but it’s far from logical.

  16. Nuclear reactors have containment domes. Chernobyl’s reactor did not. Safety has been improved at nuclear reactors with better designs and operation.

    Radiation treatments appear likely to be radically improved very soon

    It is possible to make nuclear bombs 10 to 1000 times less fatal with better construction and radiation treatments and prevention

    I have seen some of the scenarios of “worse than Chernobyl accidents”. Only some reactors would have this possibility be being located near richer areas like New York. Not that it would happen but if you write off all of a poorer state then you do not get to that high a price tag.

    I do not find those scenarios credible, plus I have indicated that the deployment of new radiation treatments would make any reactor accident almost harmless death wise.

  17. Unfortunately, all of your comments neglect the real basis of danger associated with nuclear plants.

    Chernobyl, though an awful accident was only a mild example of how bad a nuclear accident could become.

    Nowhere do you factor the complete risk/reward profile for nuclear into your argument, so (other issues in your argument aside) the implication that nuclear is safer than rooftop PV rests on your assumption that Chernobyl is as bad as it gets — sorry, but that’s just not the case!

  18. Previous research has identified falls as a leading cause of fatalities in the construction industry. Falls
    accounted for 25% of the construction deaths identified by NTOF for 1980 through 1989,7 32% reported
    by the 1996 CFOI,3 and 33% of construction fatalities investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health
    Administration (OSHA) between 1985 and 1989.6 Falls comprised 29% of construction fatalities in
    Washington State between 1973 and 1983,8 and 46% in New Jersey between 1983 and 1989.9
    Occupational groups identified with high frequencies of fatal falls include roofers, painters, ironworkers,
    carpenters, construction laborers, and tree trimmers.

    The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)
    reported that falls to a lower level comprised 9.9% of fatalities in 1996.3 The CFOI data identified roofs,
    ladders, and scaffolds as the most common fall locations. Other studies have noted falls associated with
    steel erection, falls from equipment or materials, and falls through floor openings. 540 deaths per year, from 1980-1994. Construction (4044) 49.9%. Half of those were roof, ladder, scaffold or unspecified.

    40% by people in a new line of work less than 6 months.

    So there are more deaths per year when it is not just the person officially classified as a roofer. If the person is not a card carrying member of a roofing guild, such as a laborer or a general construction worker or a private individual who is performing a solar power installation then I would consider it a solar power installation death.

    There are also electrocutions and dropping something onto someone below.

    Of the work related 8102 fatal falls (1980-1994)

    1230 were from a roof
    1055 were from a scaffold
    994 were from a ladder (20% real estate related, 200 real estate ladder)
    1297 unspecified location

    From 1990-1994 for SIC code categorized (fewer years and where a SIC code was specified which is fewer)
    147 roof SIC code 1761
    63 General contractor single family
    59 electrical work
    56 building cleaning and maintenance
    71 Painting
    79 Carpentry

    I would say that it is still at least 100/year that would fit into the solar power installation related categories and could be as high as 150/year. Plus if it being done by the homeowner or a laborer then the solar power installations would skew higher. (40% by first timers, amateurs who do not follow proper safety and have no protective gear etc…) Plus there is not enough calc on electrocutions or the guy up top dropping something heavy onto someone below.

  19. Maybe I wasn’t clear. 1.5 million roofs worldwide total ever is 1/6 of 9 million roofs. 9 million roofs generated only 51 roofer accidents. So 1.5 million PV roofs worldwide total ever should generate 51/6 = 9 PV roofer accidents worldwide total ever.
    The analogy is
    9 million : 51 roofer deaths :: 1.5 million : 9 roofer deaths
    or to continue with last year only
    500,000 : 3 roofer deaths (world wide)
    50,000 : 0.3 roofer deaths
    10,000 : 0.06 roofer deaths (US)

  20. I was estimating 1.5 million PV roofs worldwide total ever.

    Maybe 500,000 PV roofs in the world last year.

    So the worldwide number of deaths from falling off roofs worldwide lastyear would be about 17.

    The US number would be 0-4. I think the US might have installed 10,000-50,000 PV roofs last year.

  21. You estimated there are 9 million US roofing jobs per year, and that 1.5 million PV roofs should have 1/6 of the accidents that 9 million roofing jobs have. You said 1/6 is about 50 deaths, which implies 300 roofing job deaths per year in the US. And yet there are only 51 roofer deaths per year according to
    1/6 of that would be 9, not 50.

    If you are going to count 300 construction fatalities per year from working at heights, then you have to count more than 9 million roof jobs. You have to count non-roofing jobs where people die falling off of ladders.

  22. However, since rooftop installations and solar is growing strongly 30-40% per year. Then accident numbers will become more significant.

    Maybe not. Wind is on a lower number of deaths per energy generated trend as the total installed base increases. It would be presumptious to state that the same couldn’t apply for solar.

    When someone dies as a result of a company accident, companies will investigate to mitigate the risk in the future. Of course, there will always be people who want to install the panels themselves, and some of them may be reckless.

    Darwin would say that if it were a significant cause for deaths, evolution might take care of it automatically.

  23. I have not found direct statistics for tracking this. For the USA, it probably is not a separate category from other roofing deaths. US has too few 100,000 or so solar rooftop installs over 2 decades. Probably only 0 to 2 incidents per year.

    Germany and Japan should have more but probably not over 5-10 per year maximum. I have not found any sources that break out even the German or Japanese construction deaths (in english language online sources). Probably a search in the native language would be needed.

    However, since rooftop installations and solar is growing strongly 30-40% per year. Then accident numbers will become more significant.

    In terms of science, this is a relatively detailed blog post and not a submission for peer review. That being said, I am confident of my logic and conclusions. I think the variance in actual numbers will be plus or minus 50%. I could easily see solar roof installations having higher accident rates than regular roofs. The panels are smooth/low friction, they are usually raised above the roof a few inches and could be a tripping hazard as they are installed, extra wires and frames for catching and tripping, people getting up a learning curve learning how to install them safely etc…

  24. Thank you for not answering my question.

    I am not asserting no one has died from installing PV, just wanted to point out a methodological flaw in your argument. You haven’t proven anything yet. You have presented an hypothesis about how many you think have died from installing and maintaining PV. What science is all about is not generalising from one level of correlations to another, but to prove the hypothesis through empiricity.

    If you don’t complete that last step, then it’s not science. It’s you who’s doing the assuming here!

    Analogues are not useful when trying to determine empirical facts. Statistics are. Where are the statistics?

    I apologise if this is a bit nitpicking (deaths from PV and nuclear are both very low), but I’m just curious how many have actually died.

  25. I guess the same generalizing correlations would apply to denying that toyota prius and electric cars get into the same ratio of accidents as other cars until someone turned up the specific fatal accident rates.

    different kinds of cars do have slightly different accident and fatality rates but with high volume cars the accident rates are in a close range. a safe class of driver or a particular safe car might be ten times safer than a particularly unsafe type.

    Because of self selection in terms of the drivers as well as characteristics of the cars. but note that no cars with significant volume have no death rate.

    you are just assuming that there is some massive difference in the behavior of the same installers of roofs and roof top solar. the houses are not different. the ladders are not different. There is significant overlap in the people who do the work. So on the days they are installing solar they are immune to falls, they magically only can screw up on roof tile or replacement days.

  26. You can choose to believe that going up a ladder and onto a roof is somehow different if you are working on roof shingles or working on solar panels. You apparently have a scientific reason for this difference. Anti-gravity or special solar panel air bags. I do not see the reason for the special case.

  27. No sorry but you haven’t actually answered the question at all.

    Unless you have documented cases of PV related deaths it’s still just bad science.

    No empiric evidence, no proof of correlation. I have Googled for it intensively, but could not find any cases documented.

    Do I really have to explain why generalising from correlations is really, REALLY bad science?

  28. Obviously accidents especially falls can be avoided. Just like it is possible to not spill cups of water or milk or beer. Yet sometimes people get sloppy and that is when the accident happens. So one can tie ropes and do things to prevent the accidents, but not if someone is in a hurry or they decide screw it even though it rained or is raining I am going up on that roof. I don’t want to come back next weekend. I got to hurry up and get this done so I can do the next job or get to the game. Whatever safety practices there are this kind of stuff happens. A bigger system can be designed to tolerate the split second stupidity, but small cheap and frequent things are not engineered like that. Thus airplanes can be safer than cars which can be safer than bathtubs in the home.

  29. The accidents are primariily occuring as people climb up and down from roofs. At the high end of the ladder and at the edge of the roof.

    To say that there are no accidents for PV installs is to say that when you install PVs you do not have to climb up the last part of the ladder or cross over the edge of the roof. Did they have some method for transporting PV installers up and securely attaching them to roofs. Are the small fraction 37 in 100,000 roofers who have fatal problems..none of them had crossed over into the million or so global PV installs ? PV installers do not have the same sloppiness/accident distribution as everything else in the world. When you get up into millions of events then you get that small fraction of the time when people did not follow safety or screwed and had the freak aor stupid accident. As yet there is not much tracking of PV specific accidents. Only 100,000 installs or less in the US. I have not seen stats for Germany and Japan where they have had more roof installs.

    Also, if one believes that all maintenance is done from the ground then use the 30 year life instead of 15 year life for panels. I believe people can use a high pressure hose from the ground to clean the panels. (but again I bet that there are some people heading up on the roof to clean etc…). The people who are having the accident are taking shortcuts and not thinking about the dangers.
    So, I believe I addressed the anonymous question.

    50% of car accidents are at intersections, would it be the case that cars that are carrying solar panels are immune to collision in intersections ?

  30. BW, you still haven’t actually answered the question anonymous posted.

    Unless you can actually provide statistics of deaths caused explicitly by installing PV or maintaining/cleaning the system, this is just bad science.

    Besides, you don’t have to go up the roof for cleaning the panels, one of those long cleaning probes that cleaning companies use works just fine in most cases.

    Oh, and there’s this state of the art technological development that’s called a ROPE.

    Otherwise it’s an excellent analysis and an interesting read.

  31. http://www.cdc.gov/eLCOSH/docs/d0500/d000539/d000539.html

    Electrocution deaths

    Standing in water or having equipment such as trouble lights and extension cords touching water was a contributing factor in at least 51 electrocutions.

    Low voltage (600 volts and under) was involved in the electrocutions of at least one-third of electrical workers and one-quarter of non-electrical workers. At least 14% of all electrocutions involved 120/220 volts (household current). (The voltage was not known in more than one-quarter of electrocutions.)

    42 (12%) of the electrocutions of electrical workers and 88 (32%) of those of other construction workers that involved electrical wiring and equipment involved these contacts. The most common contacts were with metal ladders, metal pipes, metal wires that were deliberately cut or stripped or were accidentally cut by electric drills or other tools, wires that were energized by contact with live wires, and energized trucks and other vehicles.

    Older panels usually made either 12 volts or 24 volts, and you’d use multiple panels in series for 48 volt home power systems. Now that 48 volt systems are the norm and 12 volt systems are becoming very rare, high-voltage panels are commonly available, running at 65 volts or more.

    Maximum Power Point Tracking (MPPT) controllers. These new controllers can increase the output of any solar panel by 15-20 percent by trading volts for amps (and vice versa) to adjust the array output to changing conditions (clouds, snow on the ground, the angle of the sun). They also accept high voltage input directly, so we are frequently seeing 100-135 volt solar arrays.


    Watson solar house
    On our roof are 48 solar modules, each producing 110 watts DC for a total of 5.28 kilowatts. Power comes down from the panels on the roof as two ~400 volt DC circuits (rated at 600v). That’s the sort of voltage that can kill you.

  32. I did not add any deaths to the solar roof installation total for electrical deaths.

    Analysis of roofer deaths

    Falls from roof edges accounted for half of the fall deaths or three-fourths of the fall deaths from roofs. For roofers in residential construction, falls from roof edges accounted for 70% of work-related-fall deaths and 90% of roof fall deaths.

    Solar panels are also being installed on non-residential buildings.

    Distribution of heights of Washington state fatal falls

    Distance of falls Deaths
    1-9 feet 5
    10-19 feet 16
    20-29 feet 12
    30-39 feet 4
    over 39 feet 2
    Unknown 1

    So for Washington state it was mostly low altitude falls.

    Roof edges and Ladders are where the accidents occur.

    Workplace falls study from OSHA 1997 by Timothy Webster.
    15% 10 feet or less
    53% 11-30 feet
    17% 31-50 feet
    15% 51+ feet


  33. Your analysis is dubious at best. Correlating random statistics of “roof worker deaths” and “electrician deaths” to solar panel installations is highly questionable. It goes without, saying that not all roofing work and electrical installation jobs are created equal (ie, high rises, high voltage lines, etc). Unless there is some kind of detailed analysis of the kind of environments in which these worker deaths occurred, it is quite a logical jump to assume that the probability of worker deaths in all roofing and electrical installations occur in the same proportions as deaths that occur during solar panel particular installations. Especially if you consider that most solar power installations occur at “low-altitude” (1-3 story buildings), and the voltages involved are relatively low (except perhaps at the interface to the actual grid).

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