The deadliest form of energy: debunking misconceptions

JP Casey 21 October 2019 (Last Updated June 18th, 2020 13:21)

While nuclear power has the potential to wreak significant damage on human life and the environment, a study by Forbes has found that the industry enjoys one of the lowest mortality rates in the energy sector. With this research debunking some of the misconceptions surrounding safety in energy, JP Casey profiles the mortality rates of a number of energy types and considers the impacts of regulation and strict government control on safety compliance.

The deadliest form of energy: debunking misconceptions
There are no clear details of what nuclear incident has caused the increased levels of isotopes.

One of the criticisms often levelled at nuclear power is that it poses a significant threat to human life, with disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima highlighting the significant damage that can be done by a faulty nuclear facility. However, a study by Forbes calculated the “deathprint” of a number of energy sources – the number of people killed per kWh produced – and found that nuclear is, in fact, the form of energy with the lowest mortality rate, with tough regulation and proactive industry bodies leading the way.

However, energy sources such as coal, hydropower and biomass all contribute greater proportions of the world’s electricity, and have a significantly higher mortality rate than the nuclear sector, with the reputation of nuclear perhaps contributing to a legislative strictness not replicated in other sectors. Conversely, power sources such as biomass, which are largely decentralised and common in countries will less developed regulatory frameworks, see significantly higher mortality rates, despite the relatively small-scale nature of these facilities.

Nuclear power and the impact of legislation

Of the eight energy sources profiled by Forbes, nuclear has the lowest global mortality rate, with just 90 people killed per trillion kWh produced. This figure is inflated by the inclusion of the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, which suggests that run-of-the mill nuclear facilities are even less likely to see operational deaths than this figure suggests.

The performance of nuclear is particularly impressive considering its contribution to global electricity production. The report notes that natural gas, which is responsible for twice the electricity contribution of nuclear power, has a mortality rate of 4,000, a deathprint well in excess of double that of nuclear.

Safety in nuclear power generation can therefore be considered in extremes: there are much fewer accidents than in other energy sources, but the few that do occur have more dramatic consequences, and so stand out in the public consciousness more than, say, a slow trickle of incidents at a coal factory. While this destructive potential hangs over nuclear facilities like a cloud, it has encouraged the industry to adopt leading safety regulations to safeguard against these risks.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has produced over 200 separate safety standards, covering everything from the installation of new nuclear facilities to the classification and removal of nuclear waste, and its role as an international body means these regulations can be evenly enforced around the world, bringing a level of consistency to safety compliance.

The IAEA is also proactive in its work, not waiting for new incidents to occur to make changes, but instead reforming and renewing its regulations ahead of time. Earlier this month, the agency restructured its portfolio of publications  and released a new set of regulations for site evaluation, alongside a number of new requirements being added to existing standards.

The threat of nuclear disasters has also motivated the industry to consider a number of technological innovations to improve operational safety. The potential of robotics and automation has long been considered for potential uses in nuclear facilities, as removing human workers from areas requiring delicate operations, where the risk of accident is high, will minimise the potential for loss of human life.

Biomass and decentralised dangers

While the deathprint of nuclear is perhaps lower than would be expected, that of biomass production is higher than could be assumed, with a mortality rate of 24,000 people per trillion kWh of electricity produced. While biomass is not burned in large, imposing factories on the scale of coal – the world’s largest biomass plant by capacity, the UK’s Ironbridge facility, has a capacity of around one-seventh of the Tuoketuo Power Station in China, the world’s largest coal facility by capacity in 2017 – the decentralised nature of biomass production poses a unique health risk.

Biomass is an important fuel source for people in less developed countries, with the Biomass Technology Group reporting that more than two billion people worldwide rely on burning wood, charcoal and animal waste to cook food on a daily basis. Inefficiencies in these cooking processes, particularly in relation to the ventilation and filtering of harmful products like soot particles, can significantly undermine human health, with the WHO (World Health Organisation) noting in 2018  that around four million people die every year from illnesses related to household air pollution.

These risks are amplified by the fact that many biomass facilities are relatively recent constructions; the Ironbridge facility, for instance, was only converted from a coal-fired plant to use biomass in 2013. As a result, implementing the type of sweeping safety regulations seen in the nuclear sector is practically difficult, as much of the world’s biomass burning takes place in remote areas or in individual homes, and the few large-scale facilities that do exist have not been in place long enough for a robust regulatory framework to develop around them.

A report from the UK’s Combustion Engineering Association  found that “the UK does not have detailed biomass standards built up over the years,” with safety practices instead governed by older, generic rules that refer to power generation in general, rather than biomass burning in particular.

The US leads the way in coal safety 

Coal and hydropower are collectively responsible for more than half of the world’s electricity production, and the deathprints of both sectors reflect a similar pattern: fewer deaths per kWh produced in the US, where regulation is stronger, and more deaths elsewhere in the world where safety laws are weaker. The mortality rate of US coal production is 10,000 per trillion kWh, one-tenth of the global average mortality rate, which the US hydro mortality rate is just 5, compared to 1,400 across the world.

This strong performance is spearheaded by the Clean Air Act, a piece of legislation introduced in 1963 and constantly updated since, that covers a range of topics, from improving operational safety to introducing limits on harmful emissions, such as regulations requiring new coal-fired plants to capture 98% of sulphur dioxide produced, and 90% of dangerous nitrogen oxide emissions.

The US Environmental Protection Agency  reported that the act had directly contributed to a decline in the number of cases of conditions triggered or exacerbated by intense air pollution, noting that cases of bronchitis were almost 200,000 lower in 2010 than 1990, while instances of asthma exacerbation fell by 1.7 million over this period.

Hydropower: tight regulation pays dividends

Similarly, tight regulation of the hydropower industry has helped minimise unsafe practices, with the Division of Hydropower Administration and Compliance (DHAC), a part of the government’s Office of Energy Projects, publishing a 74-page handbook in 2015setting out rules for licensing, construction and monitoring in the sector. Critically, the document empowers the DHAC itself to complete assessments of hydropower facilities once in commercial operation, ensuring an element of unbiased federal oversight in projects over the long-term.

These regulations are a stark contrast to those in other countries, which have not coincidentally seen major accidents in these sectors in recent years. A roof collapse at a Chinese coal mine earlier this year killed 21 people , while the collapse of a hydroelectric dam in Laos owned by the Xe-Pian Xe-Namony Power Company (PNPC) in July 2018 killed at least 40 people, while displacing over 6,000 more.

Environmental groups such as International Rivers were critical of Laos’ industrial regulations, saying that the country’s latest environmental protection laws, adopted in 2005, are undermined by the fact that they are not enforced, and many of the laws were being revised as of late 2015. The government continued to permit construction during this period of revision, with work at the PNPC dam continuing from 2013 to 2018 despite confusion over which, if any, environmental and safety laws were applied to the project.