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Nuclear or Coal: A False Choice for Public Health

Posted by Morgan Pinnell on April 11, 2011

In the wake of the Japanese nuclear crisis, Americans are considering things that they haven’t thought of in a while. One is the relationship between nuclear power and health.  As workers dump millions of gallons of irradiated water into the ocean, radiation levels reach Chernobyl-like levels in villages around Fukushima, and iodine-131 is found in US milk, it is reasonable to question how “clean” nuclear is.  What is not reasonable, however, is the either/or choice posited by the Washington Post’s article (4/3/2011) on nuclear power and health, suggesting our energy choices are either dirty coal or radioactive nuclear.

How about “none of the above”? Coal is terribly polluting, dangerous to human health, and contributes to climate change that threatens our very existence on this planet. According to The Toll From Coal, a recent report by the Clean Air Task Force, coal plant pollution resulted in 217,600 asthma attacks, 20,400 lost days from work, and 13,200 deaths in 2010 alone. Together, just these three impacts from coal cost American society nearly $100 billion in health care costs.

Nuclear reactors pollute along every step of the fuel cycle, leaving us with hundreds of thousands of years of dangerous radioactive waste, are extremely expensive, and oh yes, can have accidents with long-lasting and devastating health and environmental consequences. The front end of the nuclear fuel cycle is particularly egregious in this respect. Uranium mining and milling are polluting, carbon-intensive, and have long-term environmental and health consequences. About 3 billion metric tons of waste have been generated by uranium mining and mills, and they have left us with thousands of abandoned open-pit and underground uranium mines. The tailings are radioactive and will pose health risks, including lung cancer, for years to come. 

Moreover, much like coal, there are long-term health effects from exposure to radioactivity. The National Academies of Science confirmed that any increase in exposure to radiation increases a person’s risk of harm. Counting only the immediate deaths and injuries from accidents gives only a fraction of the picture of health impacts. The number of fatalities as a result of the radioactive pollution from Chernobyl range from 4,000 (WHO estimating cancers for only those receiving maximum dosages) to nearly a million (according to a report published by the New York Academy of Sciences). Clearly we have not seen the end of the long lived radiation affects on populations and the environment around Chernobyl. To truly understand the long term effects we will have to observe populations in this area for several hundred years. And now we have unleashed yet another such experiment on Japan. We are still seeing new cancers in the Hiroshima population,  sixty five years after a one time radiation exposure. These new experiments in radiation exposure are much different and likely to be much worse. 

Finally, Fukushima once again illustrates that what we think of as an “improbable” accident does happen. Three major nuclear accidents in the last 40 years subverts the notion of ‘inherently safe’ nuclear power.

 “If not nuclear then coal” (or vice versa) is a false dichotomy. The Post article gives nuclear undue brownie points on health, safety, and pollution. There are many options for our energy future, and the potential for clean, safe, and affordable options keeps growing. The prices of renewables are rapidly dropping to be competitive with fossil fuels. Energy efficiency actually saves money. Studies have shown that we can truly have a carbon-free, nuclear-free future. Within the next 30-50 years it is possible to have a clean, renewable future with measures that include capping carbon and cutting subsidies. We cannot be lured into a false choice between two harmful and polluting energy choices.

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