How harmful is nuclear power?

Not as harmful as you think.

We have had two major nuclear accidents in the world so far – Chernobyl and Fukushima. By the most pessimistic estimates, those two disasters claimed up to 5,000 human lives. Sure, that is a big number.

But here’s the surprising fact. Every single year, pollution from energy generation using fossil fuels claims upwards of 4,000,000 lives through diseases such as heart disease, lung disease and stroke. When you normalize the death rate per unit of energy generated, nuclear energy claims about 1 life every 14 years while fossil fuels claim about 634 lives. Here’s a video that cogently argues this point.

Why, then, do we continue to see nuclear power as ‘dangerous’, while letting coal, oil and natural gas off the hook? Sadly, we have our psychological limitations in understanding certain kinds of threats. Slower and more long-term dangers, such as those caused due to pollution by a coal plant don’t trigger our mental alarms even if they are objectively 600 times more harmful.

We are quick to respond to certain dangers that are obvious to our brains – lions behind bushes, nuclear meltdowns, domestic break-ins and terrorism. However, the complex world we have built through centuries of technological progress, has given far more serious dangers plenty of room to hide. Our greatest challenge today is to recognize them and redirect our focus.

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