Friday, February 8, 2008

Bernard L. Cohen

This is the easiest to write of the articles on this blog. The only important part is a link to Prof. Bernard L. Cohen's website, THE NUCLEAR ENERGY OPTION. Here you'll find the most authoritative treatment anywhere of all aspects of nuclear energy as it relates to the public, and it's written clearly enough that any reasonably well-educated person can understand it perfectly.

This article could end right here, but maybe it's worthwhile to offer one example of his explanations. Since safety is the one place where most people's knowledge of nuclear energy is dodgy, what follows makes a good sample.


With the benefit of this perspective, we now turn to the risks of nuclear energy, and evaluate them as if a large fraction of the electricity now used in the United States were generated from nuclear power. The calculations are explained in the Chapter 8 Appendix, but here we will only quote the results.

According to the Reactor Safety Study by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) discussed in Chapter 6, the risk of reactor accidents would reduce our life expectancy by 0.012 days, or 18 minutes, whereas the antinuclear power organization Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimate is 1.5 days. Since our LLE from being killed in accidents is now 400 days, this risk would be increased by 0.003% according to NRC, or by 0.3% according to UCS. This makes nuclear accidents tens of thousands of times less dangerous than moving from the Northeast to the West (where accident rates are much higher), an action taken in the last few decades by millions of Americans with no consideration given to the added risk. Yet nuclear accidents are what a great many people are worrying about.

The only other comparably large health hazard due to radiation from the nuclear industry is from radioactivity releases into the environment during routine operation (see Chapter 12). Typical estimates are that, with a full nuclear power program, this might eventually result in average annual exposures of 0.2 mrem (it is now less than one-tenth that large), which would reduce our life expectancy by another 37 minutes (see Chapter 8 Appendix). This brings the total from nuclear power to about 1 hour (with this 37 minutes added, the UCS estimate is still about 1.5 days).

If we compare these risks with some of those listed in Table 1, we see that having a full nuclear power program in this country would present the same added health risk (UCS estimates in brackets) as a regular smoker indulging in one extra cigarette every 15 years [every 3 months], or as an overweight person increasing her weight by 0.012 [0.8] ounces, or as in raising the U.S. highway speed limit from 55 miles per hour to 55.006 [55.4] miles per hour, and it is 2,000 [30] times less of a danger than switching from midsize to small cars. Note that these figures are not controversial, because I have given not only the estimates of Establishment scientists but also those of the leading nuclear power opposition group in this country, UCS.

I have been presenting these risk comparisons at every opportunity for several years, but I get the impression that they are interpreted as the opinion of a nuclear advocate. Media reports have said "Dr. Cohen claims . . ." But there is no personal opinion involved here. Deriving these comparisons is simple and straightforward mathematics which no one can question. I have published them in scientific journals, and no scientist has objected to them. I have quoted them in debates with three different UCS leaders and they have never denied them. If anyone has any reason to believe that these comparisons are not valid, they have been awfully quiet about it.

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brian7 said...
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