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The price of clean(er) energy

We all want safe & clean energy, but how we achieve it is an issue that polarises people.

Any sensible energy debate should include nuclear minus the usual hysteria that surrounds it.

So, we can add nuclear to the old religion & politics quote, but let’s press on anyway…

Would we be better off or worse off including nuclear power as an energy source?

Here are a few things to consider:

All energy sources have negative effects, but they differ enormously in size.

As noted in the chart below, fossil fuels are the dirtiest and most dangerous, while nuclear and modern renewables are vastly safer and cleaner.

From the perspectives of both human health & climate change, what matters most is that we stop relying on fossil fuels.

There has to be a compromise. So, how do we find an acceptable compromise?

Energy sources

Just to be clear:

  • When we say safest, we mean death rates from accidents & air pollution;
  • Cleanest refers to greenhouse gas emissions; &
  • All graphics are from European UN data.

So, let’s look at the main energy sources using these scales…

Coal is the worst offender on both scales, while nuclear & solar are the least damaging.

While energy brings us massive benefits, it’s not without its downsides.

Energy production can have negative impacts on human health & the environment in three ways:

  1. Air pollution: millions of people die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution. Fossil fuels & the burning of biomass — wood, dung, & charcoal — are responsible for most of those deaths;
  2. Accidents. This includes accidents in the mining & extraction of fuels — coal, uranium, rare metals, oil, & gas. It also includes accidents in transporting raw materials & infrastructure, the construction of the power plant, or its maintenance, &
  3. Greenhouse gas emissions: Fossil fuels are the main source of greenhouse gases and the primary driver of climate change. In 2020, 91% of global CO2 emissions came from fossil fuels and industry.
How safe are they, really?

No energy source is completely safe.

All have short-term impacts on human health, either through air pollution or accidents, & they all have long-term implications by contributing to climate change.

Nuclear & renewables are far, far safer than fossil fuels.

But to be fair, we can’t just look at the total deaths from each source: fossil fuels still dominate our global electricity mix, so we would expect that they would kill more people.

Instead, let’s compare them based on the estimated number of deaths they cause per unit of electricity:

These rates are based on power plants in Europe, which have good pollution controls. Global death rates from fossil fuels are likely to be even higher.

Fossil fuels & biomass kill many more people than nuclear & modern renewables per unit of electricity. Coal is, by far, the dirtiest.

How safe is nuclear?

Two accidents strongly influence our perceptions of the safety of nuclear energy:

  1. Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986 – 433 deaths; &
  2. Fukushima in Japan in 2011 – 2,314 deaths.

These were tragic events.

However, compared to the millions that die from fossil fuels every year, the final death tolls were very low.

The key insight is that nuclear is much, much safer than fossil fuels.

Putting death rates from energy in perspective

Let’s consider how many deaths each source would cause for an average town of 150,000 people in the European Union. Let’s call this town ‘Euroville’.

If Euroville were completely powered by coal, we’d expect at least 25 people to die prematurely every year from it. Most of these people would die from air pollution.

This is how a coal-powered Euroville would compare with towns powered entirely by each energy source:

Coal:  25 people would die prematurely every year;
Oil: 18 people would die prematurely every year;
Gas: 3 people would die prematurely every year;
Hydropower: In an average year, 1 person would die;
Wind: In an average year, nobody would die.

A death rate of 0.04 deaths per terawatt-hour means every 25 years, a single person would die;

Nuclear: In an average year, nobody would die — only every 33 years would someone die.
Solar: In an average year, nobody would die — only every 50 years would someone die.
And the cleanest energy sources?

The safest energy sources are also the cleanest.

The good news is that there is no trade-off between the safest sources of energy in the short term & the least damaging for the climate in the long term. They are one & the same.

Unfortunately, the global electricity mix is still dominated by fossil fuels: coal, oil, & gas account for around 60%.

If we want to try to stop climate change, we have an excellent opportunity to transition away from them to nuclear & renewables, & also reduce deaths from accidents & air pollution as a side effect.

This transition will protect future generations and have substantial health benefits for the current one.

From a supply side

We have lots of uranium in Australia, much of which cannot be currently mined.

Given the vast examples of successful & safe nuclear adoption in many parts of the developed world, momentum & popular opinion are moving towards exploring our nuclear power options.

Post Fukushima & beyond, the sector has suffered from significant underinvestment, with some significant mines closing during this time.

Here’s a graph showing the massive uranium supply shortfall looking out to 2040, even though uranium mining is being kick-started in other parts of the world:

Source: WNA World Nuclear Associates

As of June 2023, 59 reactors are currently under construction. China is building the largest ones, followed by India, Turkey, South Korea, Egypt, and the UK.

There are about 440 nuclear reactors operating in 21 countries right now that supply ~10% of the world’s electricity.


Let’s wrap this up then.

The Liberal Party’s proposal for the locations of nuclear reactors replaces coal-fired plants. It does not expand the geographic locations.

One thing is sure & that is….

Coal & fossil fuels are far more damaging to the longevity of the human race than nuclear.
So, how long are we going to ignore the elephant in the room?

What we would like to see is some sort of multi-faceted approach, that combines renewables with nuclear, while increasing the use of gas throughout the transition.

It doesn’t have to be a single energy source. Despite recent reports, we must find a way.

There is still work to be done with containing contaminated waste but we need to have a sensible conversation about it.

So, who’s going to be the adult in the room?


Sources: Livewire, Canaccord Genuity, Our World in Data, ScienceDirect, Statistica, World Nuclear Association, UN Europe.

AAG AustAsia

AAG AustAsia

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