"Coal Kills 4,000 Times More People Per Unit of Energy than Nuclear"

April 11, 2011 | Jerome Roos,

Coal Miner.jpg
Today, Japanese authorities raised the level of severity of the Fukushima nuclear emergency from 5 to 7 on a scale of 7, making it a 'major accident' and bringing it into the same ranking as the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl.

But while European newspapers splashed the news onto their front pages, other energy-crisis related news largely went unreported. Last year, for example, coal mining accidents killed 4,233 in China alone, while coal pollutants killed an estimated 13,200 Americans. And while you may remember a few of the 25 worst energy-related disasters of 2010, most went unnoticed by Western media and the public.

When you actually do the math, coal kills somewhere on the order of 4,000 times more people per unit of energy produced than nuclear power. Or to put it another way, outdoor air pollution, caused principally by the combustion of fossil fuels, kills as many people every 29 hours as will eventually die due to radiation exposure from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, according to World Health Organization figures (Source: nuclear; air pollution).

Yet since coal-related deaths have a much lower profile than nuclear disasters, and because they largely occur in the conveniently far-away obscurity of the developing world, they tend to be severely underreported by the mainstream media in the West.

So while all eyes turned to Fukushima, the grinding, every-day death and illness caused by the air pollution, toxic contamination, and mercury poisoning leaching from the world's coal plants and oil refineries and the tailpipes of roughly a billion cars and trucks continued unabated -- and continued to go largely unmentioned.

For some reason, as the formerly anti-nuclear environmentalist George Monbiot has argued, greens seem to care a great deal about scientific consensus when it's about climate change, but when it comes to nuclear energy far too many are very willing to dismiss factual evidence and spread dishonest information. The reality we will have to deal with is that fossil fuels, and coal in particular, kill many times more people than nuclear.

Below is a graphic illustration of human deaths per unit of energy for coal, oil and nuclear power. Note that these numbers only refer to direct health impacts of extraction and combustion. They do not include the many millions of people who are likely to die as a result of anthropogenic climate change, in great part caused by the carbon emissions emanating from coal-fired power plants and fossil fuel transport.

Neither do the figures include the victims of resource-fueled armed conflicts, which tend to lead to more combat deaths than non-resource conflicts.

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Source: Good magazine