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All technology can kill people. Sometimes directly, but usually indirectly. And almost always at very low rates. Engineers and scientists work to identify these rates so that companies and society can prioritize resources to do the most good. However sometimes public opinion demands attention to areas that are not, and should not be, priorities.

risk flowchart

When you look at any issue deeply enough, most of the damage is due to small effects adding up. It’s not from a single incident. I could make arguments about gun use or airplane safety or chemical exposure or tobacco use or a million other technologies, but let me just look at a few issues that relate to energy consumption.

Coal is a major killer in our electricity supply. Nothing is completely safe, but coal has the highest deaths per kWh. The CO2 emissions are causing climate change and the non-CO2 emissions are causing respiratory problems and premature deaths. However, the public wants cheap electricity and 1,000,000 premature deaths spread worldwide annually aren’t as newsworthy as an explosion at one plant.

Japan is reeling from their change in energy policy after Fukushima. Maybe 100 people are expected to die prematurely due to radiation exposure from the event, but somehow that rate of risk hasn’t been demonstrated to the population. Since there has been so much fear-mongering about radiation, Japan has increased their use of fossil fuels in the electricity supply by 50%. The extra use of fossil fuels in Japan will kill more people each year than the entirety of the Fukushima accident.

In the US, more than 30,000 people die each year from motor vehicle accidents. All nuclear radiation accidents worldwide (from power production and medical use) added together total around 5,000 deaths. But do people recognize these risks?

I challenge you. If you value human life, start caring. Look at the real risks and start contributing to making the world safer. Recognize that newsworthiness has almost no correlation with real dangers. Use less electricity, acknowledge driver error is the cause of most accidents (and it doesn’t always happen to other people), vote for policies that actually make people safer.