Most of the afflictions wrongly attributed to nuclear power can rightly be attributed to coal. I was struck by this thought when I saw the graphics published by Greenpeace on Friday, showing the premature deaths caused by coal plants in China. The research it commissioned suggests that a quarter of a million deaths a year could be avoided if coal power there were shut down. Yes, a quarter of a million.
Were Greenpeace to plot the impacts of nuclear power on the same scale, the vast red splodges depicting the air pollution catastrophe suffered by several Chinese cities would be replaced by dots invisible to the naked eye.
This is not to suggest that there are no impacts, but they are tiny by comparison. The WHO’s analysis of the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster concludes that “for the general population inside and outside of Japan ... no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated.” Only the most contaminated parts of Fukushima prefecture are exposed to any significant threat: a slight increase in the chances of developing cancer. Even the majority of the emergency workers have no higher cancer risk than that of the general population. And this, remember, was caused by an unprecedented disaster. The deaths in China are caused by business as usual.
The tiny risk that is imposed by nuclear power has both obscured and invoked the far greater risk that is imposed by coal. Scare stories about nuclear power are a gift to the coal industry. Where they are taken seriously by politicians — as they have been in Japan — and cause a switch from nuclear to coal power, they kill people.
Since the tsunami in 2011, the internet has been awash with ever more lurid claims about Fukushima. Millions have read reports claiming that children on the Western seaboard of the US are dying as a result of radiation released by the damaged plant. It does not seem to matter how often and effectively the stories are debunked: They keep on coming. However, children in the US really are dying as a result of pollution from coal plants, and we hear almost nothing about it.
Plenty of reports also propose that the water on the Pacific coast of North America is now dangerous to swimmers, and the fish there too radioactive to eat. Again, it’s not true. Except in the immediate vicinity of the plant, any extra radiation to which fish in the Pacific are exposed is minute by comparison to the concentration in their tissues of polonium-210, which occurs naturally in seawater. There are, however, genuine dangers associated with another toxic contaminant found in fish: mercury. What is the primary source of mercury pollution? Ah yes, coal burning.
In October, for the first time, the WHO officially listed both gaseous outdoor pollution and airborne particulates as carcinogenic to humans. Exposure levels, it notes, are rising sharply in some parts of the world. In 2010 an estimated 223,000 deaths from lung cancer were caused by air pollution.
However, these cancers, though wildly outstripping those correctly attributed to man-made radiation, are just a small part of the pollution problem. Far greater numbers are afflicted by other diseases, including asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, heart disease, hypertension, strokes, low birth weight, pre-term delivery, pre-eclampsia and (through heavy metal exposure in the womb) impaired brain function.