Journalism in the Public Interest

Charting the Human Cost of Different Types of Energy


Tugboats battle the flames from an explosion at the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil rig on Apr. 21, 2010.

Since this time last year, we’ve seen a deadly mine disaster, the worst oil spill in U.S. history, and now a nuclear crisis in Japan. That got us wondering—how does one compare or quantify the human cost of different sources of energy?

As it turns out, a Swiss research organization, the Paul Sherrer Institute, has been doing just that. Using data from the institute, we pulled together a few visualizations.

The top part of the graph shows the actual number of deaths from severe accidents in developed countries from 1970 through 2008. The bottom part of the graph shows the number of deaths that might result from a catastrophic event at an average site in the developed world. This does not show the worst case scenario for any situation, but it gives a sense of the relative risks associated with different sources of energy.

These numbers represent deaths in the developed world from severe accidents only, where at least five people were killed. The accidents have occurred at many stages of the energy supply chain, from coal mining to shipping oil to accidents at actual power plants.

It’s important to note that every-day energy use from fossil fuels kills far more people than accidents. By one estimate from 2000, pollution from power plants results in at least 30,000 premature deaths every year in the United States alone.

We have excluded renewable energy sources because there is a shorter history of their use, because they make up a small percentage of our energy, and because so far they have not shown as great a potential to cause catastrophic damage.

We looked exclusively at the developed world because the great disparity in safety standards between developed and developing countries make them hard to compare. Our chart shows no lethal major accidents at nuclear plants. That’s because the only one was the meltdown at Chernobyl in the then-Soviet Union—not considered a developed country in this study. There have not been any catastrophic dam failures either.

To adjust for this, the Paul Sherrer Institute used projections to estimate what would happen if there were a catastrophic failure at an average site (the models are in Switzerland, but are generally applicable to the developed world). This stuff is complicated, and if you’re still curious about the assumptions behind the Institute’s projections, they’ve told us that they welcome any and all questions, so just ask.

And what exactly are the risks from solar, wind, geothermal, and the “negawatt virtual reactors” of conservation?

The best insulation - cellulose mixed with boric acid (so it is unpalatable to insects and rodents) is flammable, as is the wood in a wood frame house. Solar modules don’t burn. Nor do wind turbines.

Since none of these burn a fuel, none require mining, milling, drilling, shipping, or processing. Some resources must be used in the manufacture and installation of all but none emit carbon dioxide or other waste during normal course of operations.

With the advent of new solar, wind, wave, and tideal energy we do not have to take the risk of nuclear energy.  In the event of one of these new energies failing, we just loose that one source of energy not a catastrophe like Japan.  No cancer crisis.  No storing of nuclear waste.  One less terrorist threat possibility.  This will effect big coal and oil, which are big contributors to the political process and the health industry through their contribution to lower quality air.

What about the increased mortality and morbidity in mining and drilling regions. Dr. Michael Hendryx of the University of West Virginia has been studying this - asking the question “Why, if coal is so great is West Virginia so poor?” The answer is, sadly, that coal is not so great.

The Soviet Union was not a developed country? Sputnik? ICBMs? Nuclear subs? As always, there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

Of course what is missing is a more global understanding of environmental impact and cost to all life forms posed by our energy choices.  Given our species-centered view of the way the planet works, I suppose we could start with the human cost and work outward, even though our interconnectedness and complexity of relationships makes this approach questionable.  At the same time I can see some value in this kind of data as a way of getting folks to pay attention to energy choices—and it is at this point a choice.

Having a modern military does not necessarily make for a developed nation.

A consideration in regard to the down side of wind and solar sources of energy are the vast regions that are required to provide the equivalent amount of energy as nuclear.  I am not pro nuclear but what realistic options are there when not only the US but many other nations have an ever increasing demand for energy as economies grow?

clarification:  My use of “species-centered” above really translates to human centered i.e. our view that human beings (acting both individually and collectively aka corporations) have God-given authority over the earth and other species and at the same time are the ultimate victims of the natural world.  I think we have to question the idea that just because we can…we should without considering long-term consequences—perhaps adopt the Native American concept I recall hearing about:  consider the consequences to the seventh generation into the future…  (Anyone know the original source of the seventh generation world-view?)

Poop power is an answer also.NYC built it’s first ever sewage treatment plant that converts sewage to methane gas in Europe they are retro fitting existing plants.GE is building the worlds largest manure to energy system in China.In the US there are about 1500+ systems that use poop from everything from fish to chickens.The wind may not blow, the sun may not shine But every thing Poop’s.

Why say “0” actual deaths for nuclear? Thirty died at Chernobyl in ‘86

Could you throw up an actual link to the data? The single graph that you linked to is out of context, and literally not readable.

A truly developed country would have had a containment building, which Chernobyl did not.

Valid in a sense, but the USSR was generally considered a developed country, and Ukraine was one of the more developed parts thereof.

From reading PP’s article, I can’t figure out if the cited study from PSI did or not take into the “cradle to grave” morbidity/mortality arising from each energy modality (for nuclear, that would include illness/death from mining, smelting, metallurgy, active power plant use, spent waste storage, etc).

From what I can find out about PSI, they were formed by the merger of two other nuclear research entities: with this pedigree, I’d look very carefully at the assumptions used in their comparisons.

I can’t find the study PP refers to on PSI’s site: could you please email me a link?

[Oh .... their name is Paul Scherrer Institute]


@ L J Furman,  Cellulose insulation is made primarily from recycled newspaper. Yes, newspaper is very flammable. However, cellulose insulation is treated with either sodium borate, boric acid, or ammonium sulfate. These chemicals, which have been deemed safe for humans, make cellulose insulation fire retardant. These chemicals also repel rodents, insects, and mold.

Consider biodiesel from wastewater secondary effluent as a high-volume, sitting-there-waiting-to-be-used source of transportation fuels the incredible technological barrier to keeping this from being done is that fresh-water plankton, biomass, take a couple of days to purify the water whereas flocking chemicals take hours.

The issue is holding times, lighted surface volume per footprint, the process to purify the water happens then to produce biodiesel from pressing the biomass, worth about 2-gallons a day per person on a municipal system.

Phoenix, AZ, produces 10-million gallons a day of secondary effluent, 83-million pounds of nutrients the biomass must remove before tomorrow and is worth about 3-million gallons a day of biodiesel, nearby Glendale produces the same amount.

This method works well for pig and dairy waste as well, a pig produces about 3-gallons of biodiesel a day, dairy cows about 5-gallons a day.

But then, that would be too sensible and biodiesel made this way could cost $1/gallon ...

There seem to be so many exclusions, incomplete pictures, and careful selection of data in this study as to make it worthless.

“There seem to be so many exclusions, incomplete pictures, and careful selection of data in this study as to make it worthless.”

Amen to that!

The biggest ever accident related to an energy generation facility was the one at Banqiao Dam, a hydroelectric power station. It happened in 1975 in China and had a toll of 230,000 people.

The failure was not the result of bad engineering, associated with a “non-developed” country, as the article implicitly assumes. Instead it was a 1-in-2000 years rainfall that caused the catastrophic failure, as the dam was not designed to withstand such a rainfall. The connection with the Fukushima disaster is obvious.

You can separate the cases of “developed” and “developing” countries, but excluding data points from any study is unacceptable. Every data point tells a story.

yes, and careful skirting around Chernobyl paints a very different picture to reality.

You should change the title of this article from “Charting The Human Cost…” to"Charting the Developed Nations Cost…” as many other comments note, leaving Chernobyl out smacks of slanted journalism.  Something we all turn to ProPublica to avoid.  The Soviet Union was a dominant world power.  To keep it our of the “developed nations” category for this article and not explain the criteria for the decision is a deliberately confined perspective.
I can get that from The National Enquirer.

Nick Kusnetz and Marian Wang

March 21, 2011, 9:54 a.m.

Thanks for your comments and questions. We were aware when we wrote this post that the chart requires some explanation. No data on this subject is simple, given all the variables. Some of you requested a link to the data. Here’s a link to a PSI study from 2008:

Because the data we used was more recent, the numbers may not match up, but it should help explain the researchers’ rationale for drawing a distinction between developed and developing countries.

This post focused only on severe accidents, given Japan’s recent accident. For those of you who are interested, Paul Scherrer Institute also looked beyond severe accidents and attempted to quantify overall cost:

In 1963, that imho it’s modern time, a big disaster happened in Vajont Dam in Italy, causing around 2000 deaths.

Interesting that PSI only analyzes energy “accidents” in this report…if we are talking about the costs of energy production, we should discuss all aspects of that energy production, not merely when something goes wrong.  Inherent in many forms of energy production are costs that affect people on a daily basis. It seems misleading to discuss nuclear power without mentioning the deaths of Uranium miners and millers and the deaths related to contaminated air and water from vats of spent nuclear fuel rods that are left haphazardly in densely populated areas.  This report is incredibly misleading…

Nice but wishful thinking.  Too isolated a metric to be useful in balancing the different types of energy.

James B Storer

March 21, 2011, 3:38 p.m.

In June 2008 , as Pro-Publica is getting “on-line,” I was eagerly looking forward to its potential contribution.  However, at that time I am separating from normal contact with the world both physically and mentally, from serious illness, for two and a half years.  Last fall, as I began to regain normalcy I was excited to find that Pro-Publica was going strong.  It is a tremendous organization in all respects.  This particular report, however, along with its two poorly oriented charts, do not to convey information of value for this important subject.  I seem to be in agreement with most of the comments, above.
    Jennifer (comment today) indicates that the report is too restrictive, giving too much credence to “catastrophic” deaths, and with hand picked parameters.  I agree.  Human Cost, which is in the title of the report, is more than isolated “newsworthy” events involving multiple deaths.
    Mara G (comments on March 18) is right on in stating that this energy beast encompasses more than just the human species.  Also, her thoughts that we must consider ‘seventh generation consequences’ must be in our thinking today, or it will be forced upon us tomorrow.  Her suggestion that this “axiom” stems from American Indian lore may be so; but, as with Mara, I do not know its source.  It is true that dedicated scientists tend think ahead, but corporatist’s “next quarter’s profit” sets the rules.
    In spite of this rather strange start, I would like to see this investigation expand and continue down the road.  —Skartishu, Granby MO

I don’t see how you can say this “gives a sense of the relative risks associated with different sources of energy.” It just gives a sense of the relative risks of accidental death from each source of energy. How do those compare with the ongoing and expected deaths from each source of energy?

Barbara Milman

March 22, 2011, 1:39 a.m.

Because this data is so selective, leaving out, among other things, the future costs to human lives from greenhouse gases, disasters in “undeveloped” countries, ongoing pollution from fossil fuels, as well possible risks from new sources of renewable energy, that the only conclusion that can safely be drawn is that there is probably no risk-free source of energy.  That is hardly newsworthy.

Where can u find the HIDDEN costs? For instance, what about cancer clusters?My daughter Rose died last year from a rare form of “leukemia”,leaving behind a loving family and a 6 month old daughter..murdered? heck yes. She was in a well known cancer cluster area in FL.Who’s to blame?Unfortunately until you can prove it there will be no convincing anyone..
You have to honestly look at all the risks and benefits. Expect for the worst and celebrate the best. Solar?..expensive,energy wasting,production dirty but energy producing cleaner..Wind? Good for certain areas,but as in our case where I am,all the “energy” leaves our state and goes to AZ,TX,&CA;,and we see nothing. We get to be the “slums”“eastenders” and they get to own our “created” energy because of the monopoly..Coal,hah natural gas? with all the fracking permanently destroys water table and environment for a small return…
I still believe there have been many inventive and truly proven “free energy” innovations going way back to Tesla in the early 1900’s. Many others have also come after him. We still have many ingenious minds who can literally craft “miracles” .
You can’t compare apples and oranges. I am fond of saying “Figures lie and liars figure. We will not get out of this mess by trusting those who created it to save us from it….

Need more charts to tell the whole story. For instance, the deaths due to cancer per industry. Nuclear is zero or next to it. Coal is 500,000 per year.

Or how about radiation levels emitted? Nuclear is zero, while coal is 5.2 metric tons of uranium per year (and that’s just one coal based power plant).

What is this fascination with totally riskless, accidentless, mistakeless, “everyone should live forever and never get even sniffles, much less cancer” way of thinking about industrial civilization?
We’ re an Industrialized world and we would not be communicating by cheap, telephone and power company,  computer manufacturers having both ridden DARPA’s (or ARPA’s), computer internet (developed in the 1960’s to keep people across the USA and Canada ) talking to each other then , even in the awful event of a sneak neclear attack by our enemies, Commie Russia and Red China. Russia is no longer the CCCP, but it has returned from the grave as the Czarist/ Stalinist style rule by secret police.
RED communist China still exists and is super powerful only because it has hitched it’s wagon to the USA, and to American and Western consuming habits which China feeds, even as the Reds there, (old style commies like the North Koreans), insult and abuse us for wanting to buy what they make and sell so cheaply even as they ensure almost no one else can compete in a fixed market.
  Red China and Czarist/Stalinist Russia need America to keep them Afloat, but at the same time they wish to use hydrocarbon energy to produce goods to sell to West Europe and others, and to burn themselves and get paid to continue and spread the filthy “combustion” habit.

  The only sane and clean way out of this is to use Nuclear energy, the one energy form WE Americans invented, and were once not bad at using. However, since the health-nut wing of the Environmentalists, who all want to live forever, has taken a hand, nuclear energy has been made to look terrible.
All of Germany AND Japan and some other smaller nations have promised to stop using this obviously safe and super clean energy generation source because of fears that tomorrow a world wide tsunami could strike each of the world’s nuclear reactors, and they might not be ready! GAWD. . .
  The few severe disasters or accidents at atomic plants making energy, have been far and few between and mostly at places with very badly maintained reactors that were antiques at the time.
No metallurgist or builder would ask the US Navy to use an aircraft carrier built in 1939, or a battleship that hadn’t a refit since the end of WWII.
Why does anyone think the nuclear power industry ought to have to run on steam boilers over 50 years old, and to keep insisting such “rollover” inspections be done indefinitely.No other industry would be asked to provide tomorrows needs with yesterday’s equipment!
    Our navy and other military arms always have the latest and best maintained equipment on the face of the planet and the men and women in uniform   know how to run them and keep them running.     
    Warships are inherently dangerous and nothing that carries explosives and needs high compression steam boilers for energy production can be called totally safe.
  Why then do not Americans insist that our civil nuclear energy producers be allowed to reconstruct our ancient reactors, which, like all else, wear out over time? All other high temperature steam generators need to be replaced? Is it surprising that nuclear power plants need occasional maintainence?
  The benefits of building newer plants for atomic piles is that they are more efficient, and produce ever less radioactive residues and some of them may soon be able to consume these wastes as fuel!
  It seems clear to me that the reason Nuclear power development has nearly stalled in the US and many parts of the planet is because big oil, big coal and gas companies see no profit in non hydrocarbon forms of energy production. They know Wind and Solar will always be so expensive per Kw/Hr. that they’ll never replace permanent hydrocarbon combustion generators. But they fear, and with good reason, newer and more efficient and better designed nuclear power plants which will no longer pollute and which will show the reduced need for oil and gas exploration and combustion.If this doesn’t seem like a conspiracy to you; you must be willfully blind. Just remember who pays former president Bush’s bills and who is one of Obama’s biggest Supporters, I speak of Oil and Coal, of course). Neither Democrats or GOP have any interest in nuclear power which is struggling in such a desperate manner as a result of government over- and mis-regulation and conspiracy by the big energy miners.
  I know one thing. I wold rather have lived a few miles from Three Mile Island after the meltdown there then on the Gulf coast with all it’s badly thought out rigs. I cannot understand how anyone can be in favor of coal tar exploitation while whining about non existent morbidity in the nuclear generation industry.

Martin, I’m not buyin’ the premise that people have to die for our energy production, whatever the source. You may be willing to sacrifice yourself and your family, I am not.

As to accidents, it’s one thing to have an explosion, bury the bodies, clean up the mess and rebuild. It’s quite another to have a meltdown such as Chernobyl or Fukushima where the land becomes uninhabitable for, what, centuries? You mentioned living three miles away from Three Mile Island. If you lived three miles from the reactor at Chernobyl we would not be having this conversation. Do some research into the government cover-up of that disaster.

I noticed you gave mere lip service to the topic of radioactive waste. This waste is currently stored at each nuclear power plant in the USA because we STILL don’t know what to do with it. What happens when these utilities go bankrupt? Another Superfund site cleaned up with taxpayer dollars? After clean-up, we would STILL have the radioactive waste!

Comparing the private nuclear industry to the military industry is specious at best. The military spends whatever funds it has to in order to fulfill its mission. Private industry seeks to maximize a return on investment. Therefor, private industry will milk that investment for all it’s worth, cutting corners and pushing equipment lifespans way beyond the point of safety. This is not conjecture, it is history.

Lastly, to address the so-called conspiracy against nuclear power- I think this is a classic case of NIMBY. Nuclear power sounds OK but does anyone want a reactor in their neighborhood? I don’t and I don’t think many people would either. If no one wants these things is it still a conspiracy? I believe there is much more “push-back” against nuclear power than you are willing to acknowledge or admit.

It is absolutely untrue that nuclear energy has caused no deaths.

Fast forward two years and we know that:

(1)  Children in Japan are already inflicted with Thyroid Cancer

And the WHO has conservatively predicted:

* a 70% increase thyroid cancer risk in females exposed to radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns as infants
* a 6% higher risk in breast cancer in females exposed as infants
* a 7% higher leukemia risk in males exposed as infants

To learn more, Watch this important Symposium of doctors and researchers speaking at:

“The Medical and Ecological Consequences of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident”

(2)  ONE MILLION deaths were attributed to Chernobyl radiation, and children are afflicted with a myriad of birth defects which continue to this day, such as teratomos, conjoined twins, mocrophthalmia, NTD, microcephaly.

Read—->  “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment


(3)  There was a statistically significant increase of ONE MILLION deaths attributed to Three Mile Island

Watch (youtube) the award-winning video—->  “Three Mile Island Revisited”

(4)  We also see a myriad of health problems related to radiation exposure and reported by Japanese citizenry, but kept quiet by the Japanese pro-nuclear government.

Stories of esophageal cancer, bloody noses, diarreah, vomiting, eye infections, thyroid cancers, diabetes, etc.

Thankfully, the site has faithfully followed the story.

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