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Nuclear or Petroleum – “It Melted the Concrete”?

March 29, 2011

This moment is dedicated to Clyde Childers, who passed away over the weekend. Since 1984, Clyde has been my mentor and one of my closest friends. In 1997, he brought me into the world of renewable energy and became my co-founder of the “National Hydrogen Fund.” Clyde was both a realist and a dreamer. Traits needed to test the threshold of conventional knowledge and turning creativity into reality. He had faith and a deep belief in the goodness of others. Clyde’s hard work and determination captured the spirit of all who had the opportunity to work closely with him. Clyde, if you are listening, we will push on to put renewable energy in the hands of all, for the benefit of the United States and future generations. Here’s to you Clyde, I will miss you dearly.

Courtesy of Star-Telegram: A tanker truck is ablaze after a fatality crash on I-30 Fort Worth, TX.

I read the news today oh boy;
About a nuclear disaster in Japan and a deadly roadside explosion of a tanker truck in Fort Worth, Texas;
And though the news was extremely sad;
Well I just had to think;
Which is a worse evil nuclear reactors or the fuel we put in our vehicles?

This piece is not to say society should charge foolishly ahead with nuclear energy but to put it into perspective with the dangers that abound in our daily lives. The obvious answer is to eliminate the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and be wise in what we do.

Three weeks after the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster began, yesterday’s headlines read; “Toxic plutonium seeping from Japan’s nuclear plant.”  It’s unfathomable, the danger this presents to Japan and portions of the world, today and tomorrow. Plutonium breaks down very slowly, so it remains dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. “If you inhale it, it’s there and it stays there forever,” said Alan Lockwood, a professor of Neurology and Nuclear Medicine at the University at Buffalo and a member of the board of directors of Physicians for Social Responsibility, an advocacy group.

The dangers of plutonium are analyzed in detail in a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Report that is available on the web at  Key facts are:

• Plutonium is toxic both because of its chemical effects and because of its radioactivity. The chemical toxicity is similar to that of other “heavy metals” and is not the cause for the widespread fear.

• Ingestion. For acute radiation poisoning, the lethal dose of plutonium is estimated to be 500 milligrams (mg), i.e. about 1/2 gram. A common poison, cyanide, requires a dose 5 times smaller to cause death: 100 mg. Thus for ingestion, plutonium is very toxic, but five times less toxic than cyanide. There is also a risk of cancer from ingestion, with a lethal doze (1 cancer) for 480 mg.

• Inhalation. For inhalation, the plutonium can cause death within a month (from pulmonary fibrosis or pulmonary edema); that requires 20 mg inhaled. To cause cancer with high probability, the amount that must be inhaled is 0.08 mg = 80 micrograms. The lethal dose for botulism toxin is 0.070 micrograms = 70 nanograms, a factor of

• How easy is it to breathe in 0.08 mg = 80 micrograms? To get to the critical part of the lungs, the particle must be no larger than about 3 microns. A particle of that size has a mass of about 0.140 micrograms. To get to a dose of 80 micrograms requires 80/0.14 = 560 particles.

• In contrast, the lethal dose for anthrax is estimated to be 10,000 particles of a similar size.

• Botulism: 70 nanograms, injested, is the lethal dose. 100 micrograms per kilogram? 100 ng per human?

But what about Chernobyl?
The World Health Organization study in 2005 indicated that 50 people died to that point as a direct result of Chernobyl. 4000 people may eventually die earlier as a result of Chernobyl, but those deaths would be more than 20 years after the fact and the cause and effect becomes more tenuous.
There have been 4000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children, but that except for nine deaths, all of them have recovered. “Otherwise, the team of international experts found no evidence for any increases in the incidence of leukemia and cancer among affected residents.”

On the flip side, another headline that appeared in yesterday’s newspapers read; “Deadly wreck so fiery, ‘melted the concrete’.” The Star-Telegram reported, “steel beams in the bridge over Sycamore Creek were melted out of shape by intense heat after the pickup slammed head-on into a fuel-filled tanker truck about 2:40 a.m. Flames shooting into the sky could be seen for miles, and the cleanup snarled traffic most of the day. “It melted the concrete, the heat was so intense,” Transportation Department spokeswoman Jodi Hodges said. “The fuel went down the bridge joints, and the fire followed it.” The driver of the tanker was trapped inside the cab and died at the scene.

A March 13, 2011 article, “Deaths per TWH (terawatt-hour) by energy source,” in “Next Big Future” compares not only deaths for all energy sources but also deaths of workers in the different industries. A terawatt-hour refers to getting power at a capacity of 1 TW (10^12 watts) for one hour. A megawatt-hour refers to getting power at a capacity of 1 MW (10^6 watts) for one hour.

The article states:
World average death rate per TWh is about:
• Coal – 161
USA about 30,000 deaths/year from coal pollution from 2000 TWh. 15 deaths per TWh.
China about 500,000 deaths/year from coal pollution from 1800 TWh. 278 deaths per TWh.
• Oil -  36
• Natural Gas – 4 deaths
• Biofuel/Biomass -  12
• Rooftop Solar – 0.44
• Wind – 0.15
• Hydro (Europe) – 0.10
• Hydro (World) – 1.4
This includes the Banqiao Dam collapse in 1975 that killed thousands.
• Nuclear – 0.04

Data from 4290 energy-related accidents, 1943 of them classified as severe, and compares different energy sources. It considers over 15,000 fatalities related to oil, over 8000 related to coal and 5000 from hydro.

In essence, rooftop solar is several times more dangerous than nuclear power and wind power, though still much safer than coal and oil, because those have a lot of air pollution deaths.” About 1000 construction fatalities per year in the US alone; 33% from working at heights. Falls are the leading cause of fatalities in the construction industry. Roofing is the 6th most dangerous job.

The 10 most dangerous jobs (deaths per 100,000):
• Timber cutters – 117.8
• Fishers – 71.1
• Pilots and navigators – 69.8
• Structural metal workers – 58.2
• Drivers-sales workers – 37.9
• Roofers – 37
• Electrical power installers – 32.5  [also, solar power related]
• Farm occupations – 28
• Construction laborers – 27.7
• Truck drivers – 25

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics; survey of occupations with minimum 30 fatalities and 45,000 workers in 2002

The article concludes:
“Nothing is perfectly safe. Chasing perfection can cause us to ignore just improving and trading worse for a lot better. Non-roof installations of solar is safer than roof installation. Nuclear, wind, solar, and hydro are a lot safer than coal and oil. Natural gas is safer but not as much as nuclear and those others. The focus needs to be on getting rid of the most dangerous energy sources which are coal and oil first. Then look at the other energy sources. Safety and improvements for all energy sources should be made as we go.”

In closing, I too am concerned about nuclear. A 100,000 years is way too long. Its path to wide. But in reality, the data shows it has contributed far less deaths than other energy sources. As a humanitarian, I say let it go. As a scientist, the facts don’t warrant it demise. Perhaps Ralph Nader, said it best “Unsafe at any Speed.”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2011 8:37 PM

    Barry – another very good post. Putting relative dangers in proper perspective (or more frequently NOT doing so) is a common issue when evaluating problems. Take for example the national obsession with terrorism. How many American, during the worst year, die from terrorism? Compare that to an average year of car wrecks, non-terrorist gun violence, or obesity related illness. We all know how the numbers stack up…daily life and obesity present much more risk, yet we all get in cars every day and continue eating cheese doodles (though hopefully we’re not all shooting each other).

    However, radiation is scary. When that tanker truck stops burning, you won’t have to wait 10,000 years to walk over that spot without a lead suit on. I think that is what freaks people out.

    I would like to see some investment in some of the new reactor designs you folks have mentioned here, including the Traveling Wave Reactor.

  2. March 30, 2011 6:59 AM


    Definately a higly emotional issue.

    Did you read my previous posting, “China Will Do It – So Why Is the World So Against Pebble Bed Nuclear Reactors?” It may address your concern.

    Go to:


  3. March 30, 2011 1:42 PM

    I have not read it yet. I will read it in the next day or so and comment. Your posts take a while to digest — full of troublesome facts, hehe.

  4. April 2, 2011 3:48 PM

    I like what you’re saying but not sure what you mean by the last sentence. “Unsafe at any speed.” You are saying that Nuclear Energy is relatively safe which I agree with but maybe I’m missing why you quoted Ralph Nader. If you’re saying Nader was wrong when he said that then I agree. Nuclear Energy is the most practical way to replace the climate changing offenders: coal, natural gas and fossil fuels. The common argument that nuclear energy will take too long and is too expensive is the reason I decided to start my own blog on the subject of why nuclear energy does not need to be so expensive and does not need to take so long. and supports a lesser know safer reactor than are commonly used. Also see my youtube post Clean Nuclear Power – Interview Part One with Kirk Sorensen – KGO Radio
    Rick Maltese

  5. April 2, 2011 7:31 PM


    Good point. My reference to Nadar’s book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” was to point out that there are risks in all what we do. It’s a matter of how we manage those risks. Knowledge is finding answers, but how we use that knowledge brings wisdom. This applies to all human endeavors. Nuclear like petroleum needs to be used wisely. Nuclear can have long-term and wide-ranging problems, but in reality petroleum has had and will continue to have more pronounced problems for earth and humanity. Nuclear is that which brought and sustains life. Condemning it to oblivion lacks merits. So like petroleum, the fuel of choice in the transportation sector, nuclear, if not used wisely can be “Unsafe at Any Speed.

    Maybe a poor explanation, but the best I can do.


  6. ZZR permalink
    April 5, 2011 6:57 AM

    The link to the LLNL report is not working, use this instead:

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