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Last week I wrote about the environmental impacts of electricity production from coal and uranium. Some environmental impacts can cause human impacts too, but it’s hard to measure these indirect effects. Today we’ll look at the more direct impacts to human health, but first let me remind you that every energy source is going to have some human impact. Falling off a roof while installing solar panels can cause death or someone near a traditional power plant can be killed by breathing air pollution. Most energy-related deaths are rare, but we can make useful comparisons between sources.

Occupational risk

Both mines and power plants pose risks to employee health. Statistics are kept by the US government on injuries, illnesses, and fatalities at the work place. This is how coal and nuclear compared in 2013:

  • coal
    • mining – 3.6 injuries/illnesses per 100 full time workers
    • power plants – 1.1 injuries/illnesses per 100 full time workers
    • fatalities – 19 people (21 deaths per unit energy*)
  • nuclear:
    • mining – 0 injuries/illnesses per 100 full time workers
    • power plants – 0.1 injuries/illnesses per 100 full time workers
    • fatalities – 0.08 people (0.8 deaths per unit energy*)

Other years yield similar trends. Working in the nuclear power field is safer than working in the coal power industry.

Public risk

Public impact is harder to measure because both coal and nuclear power plants can both affect very large areas. Coal power plants disperse pollutants that can cause asthma, and other respiratory problems. Nuclear power plants very rarely emit a significant amount of radioactive material to the atmosphere. In both cases, proximity to the power plant matters.

Nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima immediately jump to mind, but what about coal-related deaths? It turns out this is a bit like press coverage of crashed planes and car-related fatalities. There are 100 road fatalities each day in the USA, but we ignore the chronic problem and focus on the singular events that kill many. To choose policy wisely, we need to recognize these shortcomings in our thought process. Let’s compare World Health Organization estimates of premature deaths:

Assuming conservatively that coal is responsible for a share of air pollution deaths proportional to its share in energy consumption, we get a minimum of 1,900,000 deaths annually (27%). The comparison is painful even when acknowledging that coal provides four times as much energy as nuclear worldwide.

Another oft-cited study, from the journal Lancet, Electricity Generation and Health summarizes the health effects of numerous sources on a per unit energy basis. For coal and uranium:

  • coal
    • air pollution
      • deaths – 24.5 per TWh
      • serious and minor illnesses – 13,500 per TWh
    • accidents
      • deaths – 0.02 per TWh
  • nuclear
    • air pollution
      • deaths – 0.05 per TWh
      • serious and minor illnesses – 0.22 per TWh
    • accidents
      • deaths – 0.003 per TWh

Coal kills at least 462 times as many people as nuclear generation and makes 61,000 times as many people sick.

You might be thinking that nuclear disasters, though rare, can necessitate permanent evacuations. While this is true, much of the area near Fukushima is being repopulated after decontamination. Even the most contaminated areas near Chernobyl have had people living there since the disaster in 1986. Meanwhile, coal continues to disperse carbon dioxide causing sea levels everywhere to rise ever so gradually (maybe a meter by 2100). 634,000,000 people live in areas with elevation just 10 meters or less. Besides storm surges and property damage, some island nations could be underwater by 2100. It will be almost impossible to reclaim that land for its people.

Summary – human impacts

The coal industry is more dangerous for its employees than the nuclear power industry. Coal power kills and sickens the public at a much higher rate. And both can displace people from their homes; coal does when operations go as planned and nuclear when things go wrong.

Public scrutiny is a good thing. Both fields can reduce their impact on humans and the environment, but it’s clear to me that far more pressure should be placed on the coal industry.

* “unit energy” refers to the total energy consumed by 1,000,000,000 lifetime-averaged Americans for 1 week (see my energy from a golf ball post)