How Many People Did Nuclear Energy Kill? Nuclear Death Toll

Nuclear energy creates an uneasy feeling of danger for many people.

Ancient and dangerous minerals are concentrated to awaken seemingly unnatural powers, creating horribly toxic elements that if they escape, can and have killed people in horrible ways.

How many people has nuclear energy killed and how?

How Many People Did Nuclear Energy Kill Nuclear Death Toll

Nuclear energy has been a thing since 1951 and since then, there have been around 30 reported accidents globally.

Most of them were pretty minor compared to the two disasters everybody is familiar with: Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Chernobyl is undoubtedly the worst nuclear accident in history for a number of reasons.

The reactor technology was old and ill-prepared for emergencies and the government response was slow and more concerned about image than damage control.

Still, only 31 people died directly in the accident.

But what makes nuclear energy scary is not reactors blowing up but the radiation they release.

So the real question is how many deaths through cancer and other diseases will Chernobyl cause?

Here, things get really complicated because you dip right into controversy and just discussing the different estimates and how they were calculated deserves a video of its own.

The most pessimistic estimate comes from a study commissioned by the European Green Party and projects up to 60,000 premature deaths by the year 2065.

Most scientific studies come up with numbers much lower than this.

The WHO has estimated that in total the long term death toll will be around 4,000.

While the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation concluded that even this figure could be too high.

For more details on this, check our research document.

The second big nuclear accident was Fukushima Daiichi in 2011.

Fukushima did not only operate with much better technology, that was less dangerous in the first place, much better security measures were in place and the official response was fast and decisive.

And so the current death toll is only 573.

The major difference here is that these deaths were not a consequence of radiation.

They were indirect deaths from the stress of the evacuation of the areas around the reactors and occurred almost entirely in older populations.

Estimates of the possible long-term deaths from radiation vary widely, from none at all to about 1,000.

In terms of the other long-term consequences, an increase in thyroid cancer in children has been observed, but according to the WHO this is related to the increased screening rates.

By 2018 there had been only one confirmed death among workers as a result of radiation induced lung cancer.

Now let’s compare this to renewable energy.

Solar, wind and geothermal energy basically only cause deaths as a result of construction and maintenance accidents.

Unfortunately, their current share of global energy is pretty low.

The major player in renewable energy is hydropower, which mostly means building dams and letting water flow through turbines from a higher elevation to a lower elevation.

In total, hydro has been the most fatal in terms of accidents with hundreds of thousands of deaths in the last half century.

One accident clearly stands out, the 1975 Banqiao hydroelectric dam failure in china, which has striking similarities to Chernobyl.

Old technology, poor design and poor management by authoritarian governments concerned about appearances.

In a nutshell, a massive typhoon triggered intense flooding that destroyed the dam and subsequently a number of smaller dams in a chain reaction, unleashing a flood of over 15 billion cubic meters of water in total.

Kilometre wide waves as high as buildings devastated thousands of square kilometres of countryside and countless communities.

All in all, the death toll from just this one accident and its direct consequences is estimated to lie between 85,000 to 240,000.

But all of these deaths caused by nuclear and renewable energy are actually negligible in comparison to the real killer energy source: fossil fuel, the most widely used source of energy and electricity.

When we burn fossil fuels to heat up water and make turbines spin, or to cause mini explosions to move cars with internal combustion engines, gases like ozone, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide are released into the atmosphere.

Breathing in these gases disrupts lung function, which aggravates chronic conditions like asthma and bronchitis and causes a wide range of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases but even more dangerous is the fine particle pollution burning fossil fuels causes.

A mixture of solid and liquid droplets of poisonous substances as small as 2.

5 microns in diameter.

They easily find their way deep into your lungs and increase the risk of deadly diseases like lung cancer, stroke and heart disease.

Fossil fuel related air pollution is the number one cause of environmental related deaths in the world.

According to the WHO, it accounts for 29% of all cases of lung cancer, 17% of deaths from acute lower respiratory infection, 24% from stroke, 25% from ischemic heart disease and 43% from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

All in all, outside air pollution adds up to the deaths of 4 million people each year.

What makes air pollution especially problematic and sinister is the fact that the damage it causes happens very gradually, which makes it hard for our brains that didn’t evolve with subtle dangers in mind to realise the scope of the problem.

Collectively, air pollution from fossil fuels is estimated to have killed around 100 million people in the past 50 years.

But wait, is that really fair?

Fossil fuels also provide over 80% of global energy so it makes sense that they cause the most deaths.

So let’s compare deaths per energy unit.

Deaths per energy unit produced.

A few studies have compared the death rates from different energy sources per one terawatt hour.

That’s about the annual energy consumption of 27,000 EU citizens or 12,600 US citizens.

To produce that much energy for one year, coal causes 25 deaths oil causes 18 and natural gas 3.

Renewable energy causes one death every few decades.

And nuclear, in the worst case, nuclear energy would cause one death every 14 years.

One study even found that nuclear energy actually saved 2 million lives between 1971 and 2009 by displacing fossil fuels from the global energy mix.

The numbers are clear, even when using wildly pessimistic numbers nuclear energy is among the safest forms of energy generation and at a time when we’re struggling to slow down rapid climate change it’s a really valuable low-carbon option.

However, all these facts still leave one major argument that is fielded against nuclear power.

Opponents of nuclear energy argue that nuclear waste and it’s lack of long-term storage solutions is an unacceptable problem and risk, while proponents of nuclear energy say that until renewable energies are able to cover the complete energy demands of mankind, it’s arguably safer to store nuclear waste for the time being than to inhale poisonous gases and promote rapid climate change.

But a detailed discussion about nuclear waste would go too far here, more about it in our sources.

Let us know if you’d like a whole video about it.

So looking at the comparative death rates, it’s a bit concerning that some countries are replacing nuclear energy with fossil fuels, mostly coal.

Especially Germany and Japan have been the most active in dismantling their nuclear fleet.

In a ploy to appease the public, the German government shut down 11 of its 17 nuclear facilities and plans to close the remaining reactors in 2022.

The immediate gap in energy production was filled by temporarily increasing coal production, the energy source with the largest health impacts and the worst consequences for climate change.

A 2019 analysis concluded that as a consequence, the nuclear phase-out has led to 1,100 avoidable deaths per year in Germany due to the increased air pollution in the years after 2010.

So, in conclusion, nuclear energy feels way more dangerous than it actually is.

No matter how you look at it, the one thing we should strive to get rid of as quickly as possible are fossil fuels to prevent the deaths they cause each year and to slow down climate change.

Regardless of how much you personally care about climate change issues or which energy source you favour, saving millions of lives should be something we can all agree on.

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