What's the Deadliest Power Source?

Coal, nuclear, oil, wind, gas, solar—which one is going to kill you?

Mar 29 2013, 6:00pm

Image: Screenshot, YouTube

This week, an influential oil and gas advocate, Robert Bradley, Jr., claimed that wind power is too dangerous. Comparatively, he argued, the oil and gas industry was "one of the safest" out there. This is a pretty ludicrous claim. Yet it gives us a fine opportunity to size up the risks posed by the various power sources that keep the lights on around the world—coal, gas, solar, oil, wind, biomass, and nuclear, primarily—and to better understand both the dangers each present to the people who work with each, and the dangers they pose to society at large.

Quantifying the most dangerous power source is tricky, so what follows will be a rather brief stab at doing so—but it's kind of important, seeing as how we have an interest in running this little human civilization of ours with the safest, non-lethal power available.

Wind Power

Bradley claimed that 133 people had been killed in the wind power industry since the 70s, "a high figure considering the relatively small size of the wind sector." But Bradley counted every single person who ever died while being even tangentially related to the industry—Media Matters points out that he counted suicides, deaths during wind power protests, even vagrants who died on the premises of wind farms. The more widely-accepted statistic is 12 fatalities in total. Yes, twelve. Over four decades.

That is only one more than the number of people that were killed by the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig alone. And eight of those "wind deaths" occurred in China, where workplace regulations are lax. Meanwhile, there are no adverse effects to operating wind farms, beyond the extremely rare event that a turbine malfunctions to the point that its blades fall back to the earth. So we can confidently rule out wind power as a dangerous energy source. There are no "wind spills" as one viral meme humorously pointed out, and no polluting emissions.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Oil & Gas

The oil and gas industry, meanwhile, has an occupational fatality rate of seven times the national average, according to the Center for Disease Control. Here's how the CDC arrived at that statistic:

during 2003 to 2009 ... 716 oil and gas extraction workers were killed on-the-job, resulting in an annual fatality rate of 27.5 deaths per 100,000 workers (compared to 3.9 for all U.S. workers). Of the 716 fatalities that occurred during 2003-2009, the majority were either highway motor vehicle crashes (29%) or workers being struck by tools or equipment (20%). The next most common fatal events were explosions (8%), workers caught or compressed in moving machinery or tools (7%), and falls to lower levels (6%).

That's in the U.S. alone. And our industry is much more carefully regulated than places like Nigeria, where oil spills and accidents occur with disturbing regularity. Nonetheless, if you work in the American oil and gas industry, you are seven times as likely to be killed on the job than the average worker. That likelihood rises if you are inexperienced, like many of the job-seekers rushing to gas boom towns in North Dakota.

But it's also small potatoes compared to the amount of death wrought worldwide by the pollution spewed by gas-guzzling vehicles. The esteemed journal The Lancet estimated that car exhaust resulted in 3.2 million premature deaths in 2010 alone. That gives oil a major claim to being the deadliest energy source in the world. Its closest rival, of course, is coal.

Image: Flickr


Now, there are clearly more deaths within the coal industry than any other energy sector. The mines in China alone claim hundreds of lives every year. In 2012, 1,384 were killed in mining accidents (again, hat tip to MM)—and that was a record low. Miners suffer from respiratory illness, and a higher-than-average occupational fatality rate even here in the U.S. The 2010 accident in West Virginia's Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 people. There's an average of 30 coal mining deaths in the U.S. every year. This chart, which sums up energy deaths per kilowatt hour, pretty much sums it up:

Nothing else comes close. But again, the occupational hazards of coal power are nothing compared to the damage it does to society at large. A recent report from the American Lung Association found that the pollution from coal plants killed an estimated 13,000 people a year. In India, where the plants are dirtier and subject to fewer regulations, that number is estimated to be between 80-115,000 per year.

And then there's China, now the most coal-heavy nation in the world. The sulfur dioxide pollution emitted by China's coal plants causes the premature deaths of a staggering 400,000 people every year. It's tough to quantify how many people are killed specifically by dirty coal plants, but the evidence suggests it's probably well over a million people annually.

As with oil and gas, there's also climate change to account for—all three fossil fuels are driving climate change, which is already proving deadly to those struck by epic droughts, extreme storms, and flooding fed by rising sea levels.

Image: Dismantling the SL-P, via Wikipedia

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is probably the power source most people associate with grave danger, but as you can see in the chart above, it's hardly killing anybody. The most deaths come not from meltdowns, but from the uranium mining process; miners are prone not only to cave-ins and accidents, but a higher possibility of lung cancer. The CDC found 371 such deaths among uranium miners between 1950 and 2000.

Most recently, the disaster at Fukushima can likely be said to have led to a few nuclear-related deaths, but before that, fatal accidents in the industry were few and far between. The only fatal accident that can be attributed to nuclear power in the United States was the explosion at the Stationary Low-Power Reactor Number One, an experimental army facility in 1961. Three men were killed. Besides the tragedy at Chernobyl, which Russia claims killed 31 (and watchdogs say killed dozens more), there have been relatively few fatalities with nuclear power over the years.

Nuclear power is also clean-burning, generating no harmful emissions. It's only other harmful export, radiation from meltdown fallout, has only proved to be a significant danger across the Ukraine, where Chernobyl cast its shadow—crops are contaminated for generations, and genetic mutations in the population persist today. The World Health Organization estimated that 4,000 people may eventually die from that fallout. But radiation levels at Fukushima are already registering as quite low.

Image: Inside a silica mine. Flickr

Solar Power

There are very few deaths in the utility-scale solar industry, but there are some in the rooftop solar panel installation industry. There have been at least three deaths of rooftop solar installers in California since 2009, where the industry is booming. Most construction and roofing deaths result from falls, and the same is true of the solar installation industry. The Next Big Future estimates that there are 100-150 deaths in the solar roofing industry worldwide each year.

Deaths are also likely to be more frequent as occupational regulations remain relatively poorly defined for the young industry. Meanwhile, the silicon solar panels are made from silica, which also must be mined. Exposure to the metal can cause silicosis, a serious respiratory illness. It's hard to attribute a number of deaths specifically to the solar industry, though, because silica is widely used in numerous other industries, too.

Once the panels are up and running, there are no emissions or harmful side-effects beyond occasional maintenance.

Image: Coal for sale in Mozambique. Image: Brian Merchant

Indoor Biomass

The discussion wouldn't be complete without acknowledging that 3.5 million people are killed by indoor air pollution every year, mostly in the developing world. Millions of families use wood, dung, and other biomass to feed cooking stoves and fires inside small, poorly-ventilated dwellings, which causes a host of respiratory illness and often, premature death.

Producing power is always going to come with an element of danger. There's no 100% clean or harm-free way to do it. Call it the persistent price of modernity; we've determined it's well worth risking human lives for the freedom of driving, the comfort of climate-controlled apartments, and the ability to run a host of computers and gadgetry.

But we really don't need to be killing as many people in the process. Millions of people die every year because we're hooked on oil and gas power particularly—even though we've got feasible alternatives at the ready. Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson, for one, has put together a well-received plan that outlines how we can transition to 90% clean energy by mid-century. Dutch scientists say we can make it 95%, and the UN wants 80%. Each would save literally hundreds of millions of lives without even taking into account the future death toll of climate change.

Our energy-delivery system, as currently devised, is essentially perpetrating a self-inflicted plague. Like most plagues, it hits the poor hardest, as they're forced to live closer to the source of the disease and have fewer resources to overcome it. But we've got the tools to stop this mass death, if we so choose to do so.