Risks from Severe Accidents
The OECD Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) has just published a new study entitled "Comparing Nuclear Accident Risks with Those from Other Energy Sources." The full report can be downloaded from the NEA's list of recent publications. It provides a very useful summary of trends in performance indicators and in the predicted severe accident risk from nuclear power operations. However, the most interesting section for most people will be the comparative analysis of the deaths from severe accident risks for different energy technologies.
The NEA report draws on a collection of data from the Paul Scherrer Institute, a research center with in Switzerland that has a strong background in the energy sciences.
The key comparative information is contained in the table and figures on pages 35 and 36. It should be noted that the table (shown below) deals only with immediate fatalities. For nuclear power, of course, immediate fatalities do not provide a complete picture of the accident consequences. The NEA report addresses this issue in the narrative analysis on the subsequent pages, using some conservative estimates for the number of potential latent fatalities. In the narrative analysis, the NEA report also attempts to discuss latent effects of other energy sources, such as effects due to fine particulate emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants.
While it would have been nice to see some of the latent fatality data incorporated into the table as well, I do recognize the difficulties. The report does try to make some of these comparisons in the figures, as well as in the discussion. However, I am quite sure that many people won't read beyond the table.
Another notable observation from the data is the far different safety performance between OECD countries and non-OECD countries for most of the energy technologies. Although I am sure a country-by-country comparison would show a more complex picture (i.e., some of the non-OECD countries may have better safety statistics than some OECD countries), the data clearly show that for coal, oil, and hydropower, the performance of the non-OECD countries as a group seriously lags that of the OECD countries as a group. In the case of coal, they show that China has an even more dismal record than the non-OECD countries as a group.
With only one "severe" nuclear accident (the definition of a severe accident for this report is one with more than 5 fatalities) in the mix, one cannot make any direct comparisons. However, for me, it reinforces a concern that the entry of new countries into the sphere of nuclear power operators is not an unmixed blessing. As noted above, there are surely some non-OECD countries with high standards and good safety records in other areas, and these countries can undoubtedly develop a nuclear safety program to the high standards necessary for this technology. But there are other countries where the situation is very different. The supplier countries, together with the International Atomic Energy Agency, need to find a way to assure that the kinds of differences we see between OECD and non-OECD countries for coal, oil and hydro do not emerge for nuclear.