Source: xkcd.com
Source: xkcd.com

Guest post by Oscar Archer @ActinideAge

Airlines… show you pictures of people on beaches. They don’t tell you they’re safe.” ~ Ben Heard

In 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 flew off course and into the ocean. 239 people tragically lost their lives, and the next day millions of people quite sensibly boarded their flights. Families were destroyed and left without answers, the disaster dominated the media for weeks, yet tens of thousands of flights kept delivering their customers to their destinations.

If the aviation industry were a country it would boast an annual GDP of USD $606 billion. That is a substantial chunk of the global economy. From 1918 to 2015 a total of 146,034 lives were lost in air travel accidents – an average of 1,500 per year. People certainly expect regulations and operational standards to keep this from rising too much. But how much is too much? How many consecutive accidents would it take for people to start cancelling their flights?

In 2014, the civilian nuclear industry was altogether worth something like USD $180 billion to the economies of the nations which rely on reactors for clean, ultra-low emissions electricity. This is a product of the NEI’s estimate of US$470 million per 1000 MW capacity per year and the WNA’s total for 2014 operational capacity. It’s a clunky number, but how else to compare nuclear to aviation? Each industry provides a sizeable, distinct, very different service (kilometres per hour versus kilowatt hours), and is superior in many ways to the alternatives. Each supports considerable economic activity while requiring tight institutional oversight. But only one would be stalled worldwide by an accident. And only that one faces sustained, organised, intractable opposition.

From 1951 through 2011 nuclear reactors generated an estimated 69,760 terawatt hours (TWh, 1 billion kWh) of electricity. Kharecha and Hansen calculated in 2013 that just the portion of this from 1971 to 2009 saved the atmosphere some 64 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide, and an average of 76,000 deaths annually from mitigated fossil fuel combustion-related ailments. More pertinently, the cited 2006 EU ExternE study put the “deaths per TWh” of nuclear, including public and workers, lowest out of all energy sources considered, at 0.022 per TWh. Thus, this 60 year period featured an average 26 deaths per year.

How is aviation not jealous of nuclear’s stats?

Yes, there’s waste. Planes release theirs into the atmosphere, contributing to 2% of emissions. What if the exhaust from each flight could be fully captured and encased in an impenetrable cask, completely isolated from the environment, potentially to be recycled into new fuel?

DryCask

 

Conventional nuclear plants are criticised for their large upfront costs. So are the newest, biggest airplanes, but you don’t hear calls for the abandonment of flight because its expensive. The potential of next generation reactors is dismissed by nuclear opponents… but what if we had listened to those who declared we would never fly?

Of course, we fly at our leisure, boarding aircraft by choice. This is a measure of acquiescence that nuclear energy lacks, though in normal operation it is entirely academic. The distinction also starts to crumble when considering the number of aviation accidents like Mandala Airlines Flight 091 in 2005, which claimed the lives of forty-nine non-passengers, on the ground in their own neighbourhood.

And what about terrorism? Civilian aviation has been intertwined with terrorism for decades. Despite the tightest security ever, and the assumption that it’s enough, tragedies still happen. And we still board our flights.

There’s only been one terrorist attack on a nuclear plant. While the SuperPhénix reactor was under construction in France, an anti-nuclear environmental organisation fired RPGs at it.

And as far as plane vs reactor goes, following the September 11 destruction of the world trade centre by hijacked airplanes, independent analysis concluded that the impact of a well-aimed passenger jet would not be enough to cause any release of radioactivity to the environment.

Oh, that radiation? When things are going right – and as with airplanes, they practically always are – flying annually gives a higher dose than living near a reactor. But you can bet those power plant neighbours don’t fret about boarding their plane either.

Radiation Dose

Radiation Dose


 
Source: Canada’s Nuclear Regulator