Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Post # 16: The Price of Our Addiction To Fossil Fuel

I was listening again tonight to the latest news from the Gulf Coast regarding the evolving consequences of the April 22 explosion at  the Deepwater Horizon oil rig.  The news reminded me of the price we pay for our "addiction" to oil.  While the potential environmental consequences are alarming, it is the human cost that attracted my attention.

Eleven workers were killed in the Deepwater Horizon accident.  The Deepwater Horizon explosion is the deadliest U.S. offshore drilling rig explosion since 1968, when 11 died and 20 where injured in an explosion on a rig owned by Gulf Oil.  The Deepwater Horizon tragedy follows on the heels of a March 2005 explosion in BP's Texas City refinery, when 15 were killed and hundreds were injured.

Then I thought of the tragic loss of 29 coal miners in early April in the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia.  The Sago mining disaster in 2006 killed twelve miners.  The U.S. coal mining industry reported it's lowest fatality count in history in 2009 when 12 fatalities occurred.  (Historically, China apparently has suffered around 5000 coal mining fatalities every year.)

The extraction and use of fossil fuels is a dirty, dangerous business.

I consulted several sources in an attempt to uncover the mining fatality statistics for uranium mining.  All the sources I consulted acknowledged that uranium mining is much safer than coal mining, but I did not uncover hard statistics of the direct fatalities resulting from the uranium mining enterprise.  I will continue to seek hard data (I'm sure it's available - just couldn't find it conveniently tonight) and I will update this posting when I uncover meaningful data.

I did uncover an interesting (and somewhat controversial) article from the Next Big Thing website (http://nextbigfuture.com/2008/03/deaths-per-twh-for-all-energy-sources.html).  The article presents an analysis of the integrated "life-cycle" fatality rate per TWh of electricity generated from nuclear, coal, wind, and solar energy sources.   (I caution that credible analyses of this type of are devilishly difficult to perform.)   This analysis utilized a variety of data sources and it's methodology is not completely transparent.   So, while I cannot validate or endorse this analysis as authoritative, the results do provide interesting fodder for energy-geek party conversation:

Coal: 163 fatalities per TWh
Rooftop Solar:  0.44-0.83 fatalities per TWh
Wind:  0.15 fatalities per TWh
Hydro: 0.1 fatalities per TWh
Nuclear: 0.04 fatalities per TWh

I'll continue my search for more detailed analyses...

The bottom line?

1.  We pay a high cost in human loss and suffering from our addiction to fossil fuels.
2.  There is no zero-risk energy production technology.  No free lunch.
3.  Energy generation from renewable sources is far superior to that from fossil energy sources.
4.  Nuclear energy is among the most human-friendly, if not the most human-friendly energy production option.

Nuclear energy: a sustainable energy option.

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