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This should be a fairly simple calculation: coal kills a lot more people than nuclear. It has also, over the course of the last 100 years, produced far more nuclear waste exposed to the environment than nuclear power has (including if you normalize for power contribution, etc; the numbers aren't close).

> coal kills a lot more people than nuclear.

There's so many problems with this statement I barely know where to begin.

1. Are we talking total or per kWH of generated power?

2. "Deaths" is a questionable measure. One should look at the environmental impact of digging up, processing (enriching in the case of nuclear), transporting and the storage of byproducts from processing (eg UrF6) as well as spent fuel.

3. Here's the important one: you need to look at failure modes. Coal plants pollute but they also do it very slowly and no coal plant has ever blown up to the point where it's made 1000 square miles of land uninhabitable for decades (to compare, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is 1000 square miles).

4. Coal vs nuclear is a straw man argument. Coal is terrible. Everyone knows this. Coal is becoming the power source for the developing world as it is naturally dying in the developed world, being replaced by renewables and fossil fuels that while not great, are at least better than coal (eg natural gas).

5. How many of the externalities of nuclear power aren't factored into the price? Like the cost of storage and clean ups. These seem to be borne by governments not the companies profiting from the power (of course, some nuclear power in some countries is state-owned and run; depending on the country I'm not sure if this is better or worse).

Personally I find the apologism on HN about nuclear to be disingenuous, exhausting and naive.

Let's also keep in mind we have yet to amortize 10,000 years of waste storage that we haven't figured out yet. Highly radioactive waste is literally sitting around in barrels and pools. I wonder what happens if a pandemic or some other disaster happens, and a spent fuel pool is unable to be cooled or refilled? Would that criticality event hit the water table? If it did, how would it disperse in the water table? How much of a given aquifer could a single plant render unpotable?

I don't know if nuclear waste is actually worse than the waste from a chemical factory. Any industry has its risks for the environment.

> 3. Here's the important one: you need to look at failure modes. Coal plants pollute but they also do it very slowly and no coal plant has ever blown up to the point where it's made 1000 square miles of land uninhabitable for decades (to compare, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is 1000 square miles).

I'm afraid I can't find the article right now, so I don't have the exact statistics, but I have read that a large coal plant operating normally for 20 years releases more radioactive particles into the atmosphere than Chernobyl did. (There's a lot of trace radioactives in coal.) Nuclear plants that melted down catastrophically every 20 years, like clockwork, might still be safer than coal plants operating perfectly.

What’s a radioactive particle? How does does that article account for the difference between plutonium, uranium, cesium, iodine and their substantial differences when it comes to their effect on the (human/animal) population. I’ll call any comparison on pure particle count bullshit.

There’s no question that coal is a stupid way of generating electricity, but that doesn’t make the dangers of nuclear go away.

Just because they both have dangers doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the safest one!

There’s more than two options, after all.

1. per kWH. Nuclear is very, very safe. Global avg 90 deaths per trillion kwh, vs coal 100,000 deaths per trillion kwh. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2012/06/10/energys-d... If you really want to be surprised, nuclear is even safer than solar https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/publications/magazi... (Note that residential rooftop solar is crazy risky as well as inefficient - all those installers up on random roofs...)

2. Coal requires lots more fuel so lots more digging up and transportation, spent fuel is dissipated via atmosphere, as well as solid ash.

3. Concentrated harm vs dispersed harm. still coal. Note that the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is great for wildlife - it is basically an environmental preserve, since humans (the largest impact on wildlife & environment) are largely excluded.

4. Focus on "nuclear vs CO2". If you're serious about global warming, nuclear is the only viable technology.

5. Storage and cleanups - there's a lot more for coal than you think. Coal byproducts are one of the largest industrial waste streams. https://www.epa.gov/coalash/frequent-questions-about-2015-co...

Nuclear vs coal is like airplane crashes vs car crashes. Airplane accidents make the news because they are unusual and affect many people in a single incident, even though car crashes kill (and injure) far more people every year (per mile traveled).

The fact that you know the names Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island (probably?) should help you realize how SAFE nuclear is - the exceptions become scare stories for decades.

>If you're serious about global warming, nuclear is the only viable technology.

This is simply untrue. Overprovisioned renewables can get us to the point where the few times gas peakers are needed becomes negligible. This is the false "binary choice" that the other comment was pointing out.

"For the US to be powered exclusively by wind power it would require 26,619,401 acres of land, an area nearly equivalent to the state of Tennessee." https://www.strata.org/pdf/2017/footprints-full.pdf (wind farm size, not windmill size)

The area of California is 105 million acres, so cover 1/4 of the area of California in wind farms.

Urban land in the US is about 70 million acres (https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/major-land-uses/major...), so this would be another 3rd the amount of urban sprawl of all cities and towns in the country.

Solar is a little bit better - only 16,393,234 acres, or 1/6 of California, but you can't really do agriculture on that land like you could with wind farms.

And this is without overprovisioning or increasing electricity use to replace gasoline.

Do you consider either of those options viable? What overprovisioning factor are you going to shoot for?

I don't think it's just a binary choice: I think it's a blended choice, but you've got to have a heavy reliance on nuclear if you want to dramatically cut CO2 emissions.

> Overprovisioned renewables

Requiring far more investment.

> per kWH. Nuclear is very, very safe

Then again, per land area wasted , nuclear is 23 Km2 per year vs ... something tiny? Plus the comparison with coal only is unfair.

> 4. Focus on "nuclear vs CO2". If you're serious about global warming, nuclear is the only viable technology.

Here the question is how to remove excess CO2 without destroying the rest of the planet.

A lot of coal is strip-mined, which damages large amounts of land.

And let us not forget about towns like Centralia which had to be abandoned (by nearly all residents) due to an underground coal fire that has now been burning for 57 years.




That had nothing to do with coal mining, per se, though. The spark was set off in a hole in the ground made by previous mining, yes, but it was an entirely-untapped coal vein that caught fire, and basically anything could have caught it on fire if it was ever exposed to surface air. (A meteorite impact, or earthquake fissure, or sinkhole collapse, could have made a similar crater and exposed the coal vein, for example.)

Centralia is more of a weird natural disaster. It's essentially a slow-motion, underground forest fire. And, like most forest fires, while usually a human with a match is the proximal cause, if the human wasn't there, nature would still have supplied a spark eventually.

Coal seam fires aren't particularly rare, and while they can occur "naturally", almost all of the thousand or so burning around the world at any given time (some for months, some for centuries) are explicitly linked to mining.


Sure, all the ones we know about today. It's a bit of an anthropic argument, though. We only know about the coal seams that have survived long enough for us to find them; and, almost universally, we've chosen to exploit the seams we've found. That leaves two questions unanswered:

• What would the statistical yearly probability of a coal-seam fire be for seams we find, check up on, but never mine? (We know of a few seams in protected areas, but I don't think we know of enough to have any statistical power. Also, the natural catching-fire rate might be, say, one per thousand years, which would be a bit like the pitch-drop experiment in its requirements, yet would still mean that coal seams catch fire pretty much "as soon as" they reach the surface, in geological time.)

• More interestingly: how many coal-seam fires have happened historically in the Earth's 4.2 billion years being around, that finished and burned out all the coal, and now there's just a cave there? Or ex-cave sedimentary layer, given that these caves tend to collapse? Can we tell when such a cave/layer was previously a coal seam? (I assume so, because soot, but can pressure-treated soot be differentiated from other kinds of naturally-occurring mineral striae?)

Hell, a lot of coal in Appalachia is extracted with mountaintop removal. They literally plow the tops of mountains into adjacent valleys.

It's not permanent though, the land is reclaimed after mining

Oh they rebuild those mountains?

Coal and nuclear (and natural gas) are about the same land use area footprint (https://www.strata.org/pdf/2017/footprints-full.pdf graph on last page).

Solar (3x), wind (5x), hydro (25x) are much higher land use.

Note that resource extraction use is considered temporary (and in the US, companies are required to pay for restoration, per the link above). Wind uses a large area, but agricultural use can proceed at the same time.

We currently have no viable CO2 removal technology. Nuclear power has no chance of destroying the planet (or even the biosphere).

> Here the question is how to remove excess CO2 without destroying the rest of the planet.

Nature already scrubs CO2 and actually thrives on the elevated amounts; reducing production means nature will have a chance to catch up. That is, assuming we've not already reached a catastrophic tipping point where e.g. algae (responsible for most CO2 sequestration) die from the heat and the CO2 sequestered in permafrost is released.

> Concentrated harm vs dispersed harm. still coal. Note that the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is great for wildlife

Let's remove humans from Earth completely and all the environmental problems will be solved.

I tend to agree with your other arguments.

I think the point was just that it didn't leave that zone a barren inhospitable wasteland, not that we should count that as a plus.

You're not wrong; the best way to fight climate change is population decrease (and therefore consumption decrease), but that'll require some serious dystopian measures - population control (like China's strict child birth laws), inaction (do not help in case of natural disasters, famine), genocide, etc. And that's probably not a guarantee either.

> Failure modes

Making 1000 square miles of land uninhabitable for decades doesn't kill people, though. (It doesn't even harm the land, in the long term; it's sort of a good thing, decades later, like letting farmland lay fallow.) With modern technology, as was employed at Fukushima, everyone was safely evacuated from the region and literally nobody died from radiation poisoning.

Coal plants pollute globally very slowly. Coal plants pollute locally very quickly, and are capable under the right conditions of disasters just as bad as radiation fallout from our bad old nuclear plants. Have you heard of the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Smog_of_London ? Killed 4000, poisoned 100,000 more. And that was just a regular day of the life of London's coal plants, combined with some bad weather. So the coal plants were just fine, and kept on going after that. Meaning that there were other days like that, both before and after (if not quite as bad.) It's like a nuclear power plant that can "melt down" at random, without harming itself, enabling it to keep "melting down" over and over!

> Coal vs nuclear is a straw man argument.

No; it's the real decision that developing countries (and rural areas of developed countries) are making every day: keep building coal plants, or replace some of them with nuclear plants?

Nuclear is a viable consideration for these places in that it is a drop-in replacement for a coal plant that doesn't require any additional infrastructure to connect the plant to the mine+refinery: before, you were shipping rocks on a road to a plant; now you're still shipping rocks (well, pressed rock powder) on a road to a plant. You can even reuse the mining equipment you had from the coal mining! And, often, you have a head-start on the work, as (quoting Wikipedia): "Lignite deposits (soft brown coal) can contain significant uranium mineralization." Your coal mines have probably already excavated some, and now just have it laying around feeding no domestic industry!

Meanwhile, oil or LNG requires building pipelines, different extraction equipment, etc. And affordable solar or wind—which inevitably means domestically produced solar or wind equipment—requires a whole electronics and materials industry, and is only workable in some countries to begin with.

(The real third contender for these countries is hydro power. Doesn't require shipping anything to the plant! Much bigger civil engineering project, though, and each one is a one-off design that has its own devastating failure modes, which makes them possibly more scary to government buyers than nuclear power, where at least you can buy a cookie-cutter copy of a successful plant.)

> depending on the country I'm not sure if [state-owned plants are] better or worse

Usually far better, in that ultimately most externalities come back to bite a government (in the form of e.g. decreased GDP, and thus less taxable income), so they have far more of an incentive to clean up their act than an individual corporation does.

Why do you think it is disingenuous?

Because this pro-nuclear punditry tends to involve a comparison to the worst of fossil fuels (and a fuel source that's in decline, at least in the developed world) and tends to present this as a binary choice.

I think you’ve made some valid points in your previous post, but I’m not sure I buy this as a valid argument.

A quick google search tells me that 30.1% of US energy generation comes from coal [1] (at least in 2017), with 62.7% coming from fossil fuels overall.

Unless you’re proposing switching to a ‘cleaner’ fossil fuel source, there’s only so much wind/solar/geothermal can contribute until we see major leaps in the available technologies. Until that time I will continue to view them as a supplemental power source, rather than a primary one.


Just on your specific point; the US is a bit of an outlier on coal due to protectionist practices around the coal industry.

If you look at Europe on the other hand coal is in rapid decline (9% decrease 2017-2018 for example[1]) with many countries now being coal free.

In the UK we measure coal free time in weeks now. I expect us to be coal free for good in only a couple of years.

In some countries this is a straight switch to renewables but but often I think it's a staged switch through natural gas.

1. https://sandbag.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/The-Europe...

On the other hand look at Germany, who has arguable gone the furthest in the "green transition", which includes shutting down their nuclear power plats. It imports 60+% of its energy, most of it from fossil fuel sources.

But hey, German energy production looks awesome from an environmental perspective!

That's totally false, where did you get this from? Germany is a net exporter of electricity [0]. Nuclear is being phased out and replaced by renewables. [1] Yes, that totally sucks for CO_2 emissions...

[0] https://de.statista.com/statistik/daten/studie/153533/umfrag...

[1] https://i2.wp.com/adveco.co/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/EU-po...

That was mostly a (slightly wierd) knee jerk after Fukushima. They are definitely another outlier.

That's fair.

In the shorter term, I think it's true enough. Germany and Japan (both wealthy, highly developed nations) have both increased consumption of coal in order to move away from nuclear. I won't argue that's what they will do in the longer term though.

That's not true for Germany, see my comment above. Germany has nearly completely replaced nuclear with renewables, and is now (slowly) phasing out coal. Coal has been mostly constant with a slight downward trend in the past 15 years.

If every current nuclear reactor melted down, how much of earth would be uninhabitable?

I'm uncomfortable with this argument. The implied conclusion is that nuclear is safer than coal. That may be true, I don't know.

But it's not clear you can argue this from historical data.

For comparison, you could argue nuclear weapons are safer than conventional ones, as they have killed fewer people, and that bioweapons are the least dangerous.

The issue is whether there is a tail to the distribution of nuclear event impacts (costs or fatalities), which we may not have seen much of empirically yet.

It seems hard to address that empirically with nuclear (although you could argue that perhaps the same is true for climate change for coal?)

Facts are that a nuclear power plant can fail catastrophically and its waste is dangerous for 100.000 years. These are easy to explain, and instances of catastrophic failure are known by pretty much everyone.

Coal however is a lot more problematic because it's invisible; people are shaken when there's nuclear material leaking out in the water around e.g. Fukushima, but the gradual emission of burning coal waste (33.1 gigatons of CO2 alone; see another comment about coal ash as well) happens unseen. And that's emitted into the air, whereas the (according to wikipedia) 12,000 tonnes of nuclear waste is solid, much easier to keep contained.

>instances of catastrophic failure are known by pretty much everyone.

I don't think anyone says we've seen the worst possible failures of nuclear plants.

As an extreme example, what if some crazy terrorist deliberately blows one or several up attempting to maximize damage? How bad would that be? How frequently does this occur?

I guess my point is that if there's real risks of that magnitude, they are just as invisible as coal radiation.

I can't envision a remotely plausible scenario that could even come close to Chernobyl in terms of impact. Chernobyl had no containment structure at all and was running at full power (infact, beyond full power once the steam inside the reactor increased the rate of fission) at the time of the incident. The steam explosion was so powerful that it launched the 4 million pound reactor lid through the roof scattering bits of fuel all over the countryside and then letting the radioactive graphite from the reactor burn and send highly radioactive smoke up into the jetstream.

Chernobyl consisted of an unsafe reactor design with a positive void coefficient and a control rod design that locally increased power output as it was being inserted combined with terrible management and operators who did not understand why the reactors power output was low and a complete lack of a containment structure to top it all off.

I genuinely can't envision a scenario like that happening with other non-RBMK reactors. Even if the operators were intentionally trying to just do the most devastation physically possible, it's not like they're going to be able to do anywhere near the damage that Chernobyl did. Trying to compromise the containment structure is not a reasonable goal, they are just far too massive and at least in the U.S. they are designed to take a direct hit by a fully loaded passenger jet without rupturing. Let alone rupturing the massive thick hunk of steel that is the reactor vessel inside of it.

There's still a couple of retrofitted RBMK style reactors operating in Russia but supposedly those don't have the same void coefficient problem, have better management and operational practices, and have better safety systems than the original design. Even if you count those against the safety of new nuclear power plants we're still not as bad off as Chernobyl was.

Thanks for your detailed response.

I hope you're right about the inherent safety of modern reactors, even in the face of malevolence. I don't know enough to contradict you.

In 1605 Guy Fawkes put enough gunpowder under the UK parliament to go through 7-foot concrete walls.

But if it's impossible to blow up a containment vessel, that's fantastic.

All I'd say is that I stand by the point that history to date is only weak evidence for future safety, and that as a general point, it's very hard to build something that survives dedicated adversaries.

Nuclear power plants are designed with scenarios like terrorist attacks in mind. The problems we've seen have all stemmed from systematic failures that were complex and hard to predict.

I feel folks aren't really taking the effort to understand my point here.

>Nuclear power plants are designed with scenarios like terrorist attacks in mind

Look, the world trade center was 'designed with scenarios like plane crashes in mind'. The towers still fell :( No one really expected bad guys to use planes as weapons, and things to get so hot.

Fukushima was designed with tsunamis in mind. No one expected a tsunami so far outside the design envelope.

That's fine, you can't economically design for every eventuality, so you define an envelope.

If you design a system to be robust against the 1 in 50 year Tsunami/attack/whatever, then after 50 years, all events are likely going to be in your margin of safety. If you extrapolate purely from that observed data, you are going to get a real shock 70 years in when a 1-in-100-years storm/attack/whatever occurs.

It's great that things are designed for robustness. But it then takes a long time for the true costs to be naively estimated just by looking at historical data.

Analysis based on 'the problems we have had' is fundamentally rearward looking. There's a value to it, but it's not the complete story. I argue its particularly dangerous with a technology that has rare but catastrophic failure modes.

In particular, it is flawed to look at a limited history of a tech with rare but catastrophic failures/costs, and empirically compare against a tech with more normally distributed failures/costs.

The companies that ran Fukushima failed to implement tsunami-proofing measures that were standard internationally, and studies had shown were necessary at the site [1]. So back to my point about complex failures: an engineering project's success is a function of both the physical assets and the organisations set to run them. Chernobyl is a prime example of where this intersection resulted in catastrophy.

I do understand your point, by the way. I completely agree that we can't account for every possible scenario using history alone. But there's a balance between over-engineering for fantastical events that are difficult to predict and keeping things affordable. Equally, at some point you have to weigh up the very present and deadly effects of coal power plants against the low probability, high impact of a nuclear power plant going boom.

[1] https://carnegieendowment.org/2012/03/06/why-fukushima-was-p...

Coal power plants release radiation into the atmosphere as a matter of routine. If you live near one your radiation exposure is guaranteed to be much hire than if you live near a nuclear power station.

Except nuclear energy safety is measured by unit of productive output (GWh) over decades compared to the same unit of productive output over decades from coal, gas, solar, etc.

Nuclear power is not being built, stockpiled, and used as a deterrent.

It’s not a simple calculation when people in Japan are still debating what the final cost of the Fukushima disaster will eventually add up to.

To do a simple calculation, you need to know the real costs of things, and right now those are unbounded.

“Think tank puts cost to address nuke disaster up to 81 trillion yen”


His point is that coal costs are just as high, if not higher, but we prefer not to think about them that way because it makes us uncomfortable. Just have your pick of examples of this thinking among the comments containing "uncomfortable".

I think the $2.4 trillion of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_cost_of_the_Iraq_War is more trustworthy.

Good to know: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/coal-ash-is-more- radioactive-than-nuclear-waste/

To be clear, I was not defending coal. But I do have to ask over what time period radioactive coal wastes "kills a lot more people than nuclear," because being alive is fatal. I think the variance matters even if the mean is lower.

Coal kills more people than nuclear over all time periods, including nuclear accidents. The numbers are not close. The death toll attributed to coal is down to a historical low of (low-end estimate!) 7,500 people per year in the US.

Radiation isn’t the only way coal kills people.

> This should be a fairly simple calculation: coal kills a lot more people than nuclear.

That is a good argument against coal. Why not trying to develop better solutions? That is, including nuclear. The nuclear solution as it stands is obsolete, by the industry's standards, expensive and doesn't make much sense. The next-generation is not ready—more effort needed there. Alternative solutions exist that are both safer and economically sound.

>This should be a fairly simple calculation: coal kills a lot more people than nuclear.

That's neither here nor there, if it kills them in more accumulated ways, and with less or no chance of mass killing accidents.

Cars also hit millions, but we are ok with it, because of the cost/benefit, and the mode that it does so (isolated in different car accidents, etc).

If cars were able to kill 20,000 people in a single bad accident, then we'd have found something else instead...

A lot of people actually aren’t okay that cars kill so many people, on top of the other enormous externalities. No single person woke up one day and did a cost-benefit analysis on private automobile travel (and if they had, they might’ve come to the conclusion that it’s dangerous and bad for the environment). But we shouldn’t assume that just because the world is the way it is that it was the result of careful reasoning by all of society and not individual decisions of decades, many of which were made in bad faith or for nefarious purposes.

I.e. just because we use coal doesn’t mean society is okay with it.

But this is entirely a fault in human thinking that we should strive to overcome.

I don't think. It's an entirely rational calculation.

Absolute death counts are not the be all end all... Spread over time, spread over incident, etc, are all things to also consider.

But why? The only difference I see is that one is less shocking to humans, makes worse news headlines.

At least in part I think it’s because everyone dies eventually but we tell ourselves that we live on through our family and community and we also rely on family and community to support those left behind when death happens; so (all other things being equal) we care significantly more about children dying than old people even where both are preventable, and we also care more about mass deaths which affect a single community very acutely than mass deaths spread out across many communities.

We also think about causes in quite different ways again precisely because everyone dies eventually. Shortening of life is ‘less bad’ than preventable death which is ‘less bad’ than deliberate killing.

For nuclear disasters you can then layer on an element of irrational fear of the unknown and lack of control which sets it apart - the horror of ‘this thing I don’t understand might kill us all in a few days and we can’t stop it’.

>For nuclear disasters you can then layer on an element of irrational fear of the unknown and lack of control which sets it apart - the horror of ‘this thing I don’t understand might kill us all in a few days and we can’t stop it’.

Doesn't sound irrational to fear more something that you don't know how it will spread and who/when will kill -- which could even vary by how the winds go on the day of the accident, etc.

Sounds like a legitimate reason to fear something more -- an unpredictable killer is more fearsome that a more predictable one, which you can at least try to come up with a plan to avoid more easily...

I was thinking specifically here about people in North-Western Europe and the UK who panicked when the Chernobyl accident first came to light and thought they'd be dead within days. To my mind, that was indeed pretty irrational.

It's also an interesting contrast to what I've read about the attitude of the people who actually lived in Pripyat at the time who were arguably irrationally calm.

For the same reason regular cars that kill e.g. 1 in 10,000 in accidents (as we know them), are more acceptable than a design that might be far more safe individually, but when in the (far more seldom case) one blows up, it kills everybody in its 2km periphery.

Even if the total death count is the same (or even if its less for the new design), the widespread small scale pattern is more acceptable than sudden mayhem.

For one, you could just not get in a car, and avoid recklessly crossing the street in the first case, and you'll be fine. In the other case, in the off chance of a new-car blowing up, it can destroy your whole 5-10 block periphery. I wouldn't accept that...

> For one, you could just not get in a car

Yeah, but what's the coal plant equivalent? You can try to avoid living near nuclear plants as well.

>Yeah, but what's the coal plant equivalent? You can try to avoid living near nuclear plants as well

And then the wind blows in this or that direction, after an accident, and your 1000 mile away "safe" place gets all kinds of radiation....

Exactly. We should be just as ok with occasional Nuclear accident deaths as we are with accumulated car deaths.

In the UK coal is becoming obsolete, we use natural gas turbine generators instead. "Better than coal" is damning with faint praise.

I think the argument is that it's better than coal with respect to radioactivity, and better than any fossil fuel with respect to CO2, and better than most renewables with respect to land usage.

Seems disingenuous considering how wide spread coal use is.

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