Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations was withering: “The Plant was
operated in a culture that seemed to allow instruments to operate in alarm
mode rather than questioning the alarm and rectifying the relevant fault.”

If we let private companies build new reactors, how can we ensure that
higher safety standards are adhered to? I don’t know.

At the same time, we must not let ourselves be swept off our feet in
horror at the danger of nuclear power. Nuclear power is not infinitely
dangerous. It’s just dangerous, much as coal mines, petrol repositories,
fossil-fuel burning and wind turbines are dangerous. Even if we have no
guarantee against nuclear accidents in the future, I think the right way
to assess nuclear is to compare it objectively with other sources of power.
Coal power stations, for example, expose the public to nuclear radiation,
because coal ash typically contains uranium. Indeed, according to a paper
published in the journal Science, people in America living near coal-fired
power stations are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near
nuclear power plants.

When quantifying the public risks of different power sources, we need
a new unit. I’ll go with “deaths per GWy (gigawatt-year).” Let me try to
convey what it would mean if a power source had a death rate of 1 death
per GWy. One gigawatt-year is the energy produced by a 1 GW power
station, if it operates flat-out for one year. Britain’s electricity consumption
is roughly 45 GW, or, if you like, 45 gigawatt-years per year. So if we got
our electricity from sources with a death rate of 1 death per GWy, that
would mean the British electricity supply system was killing 45 people per
year. For comparison, 3000 people die per year on Britain’s roads. So, if
you are not campaigning for the abolition of roads, you may deduce that “1
death per GWy” is a death rate that, while sad, you might be content to live
with. Obviously, 0.1 deaths per GWy would be preferable, but it takes only
a moment’s reflection to realize that, sadly, fossil-fuel energy production
must have a cost greater than 0.1 deaths per GWy – just think of disasters
on oil rigs; helicopters lost at sea; pipeline fires; refinery explosions; and
coal mine accidents: there are tens of fossil-chain fatalities per year in

So, let’s discuss the actual death rates of a range of electricity sources.
The death rates vary a lot from country to country. In China, for example,
the death rate in coal mines, per ton of coal delivered, is 50 times that
of most nations. Figure 24.11 shows numbers from studies by the Paul
Scherrer Institute and by a European Union project called ExternE, which
made comprehensive estimates of all the impacts of energy production.
According to the EU figures, coal, lignite, and oil have the highest death
rates, followed by peat and biomass-power, with death rates above 1 per
GWy. Nuclear and wind are the best, with death rates below 0.2 per GWy.
Hydroelectricity is the best of all according to the EU study, but comes out
worst in the Paul Scherrer Institute’s study, because the latter surveyed a
different set of countries.

Figure 24.11. Death rates of electricity generation technologies. x: European Union estimates by the ExternE project. O: Paul Scherrer Institute.