death rate per watts chart

Per unit of energy, oil and especially coal are much more dangerous than nukes. Image: Seth Godin.

With all the focus on the situation in Japan, it’s easy to forget that global society’s biggest source of electric power, good old fashioned coal, is pretty dangerous stuff. And with the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill coming up next month, we should remember that oil’s pretty dangerous too.

Marketing guru Seth Godin turns data on deaths-per-terawatt of energy produced into an easy-to-understand chart that tells a story that may surprise you. For every person killed by nuclear power generation, 4,000 die due to coal, per unit of energy produced.

This doesn’t make nuclear power safe. But it does bring up a crucial point of psychology as Japan’s nuclear emergency continues. As Godin puts it,

Vivid is not the same as true. It’s far easier to amplify sudden and horrible outcomes than it is to talk about the slow, grinding reality of day to day strife. That’s just human nature. Not included in this chart are deaths due to global political instability involving oil fields, deaths from coastal flooding and deaths due to environmental impacts yet unmeasured, all of which skew it even more if you think about it.

What Godin forgets is that nuclear deaths could greatly increase after Fukushima. Let’s pray that they don’t. But his basic point holds — nuclear accidents are dramatic, like a fiery plane crash, and they grab attention. But many more people die in car accidents than in the air. In the same way, boring old coal lacks the star power of nukes but it’s a much deadlier killer.

And, as George Monbiot puts it, “While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong. The only safe coal-fired plant is one which has broken down past the point of repair.”

The least of many evils

It’s hard to argue that any of the world’s large-scale energy sources inspire much confidence.

Today’s nuclear plants are unsafe in the short run and their waste is dangerous for future generations; tomorrow’s advanced nuclear plants may be a pipe-dream. Conventional oil and gas are running low and unconventionals provide poor, often negative, energy return. Coal means disaster for the global climate and for local coalfield communities.

We do need to ramp up truly clean renewables, but it’s likely they’ll only fill part of the gap.

This means that people who worry about global warming and peak oil really can only propose one realistic option for society’s energy future: conservation and powering down.

— Erik Curren