Flight and Fission: How to Compare?
In 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 flew off course and into the ocean. 239 people tragically died. 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$664 billion. That is a substantial chunk of the global economy. From 1918 to 2018 a total of 153,400 lives were lost in air travel accidents — an average of about 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 accidents in rapid succession would it take for people to start cancelling their flights?
In 2016, the civilian nuclear sectors were altogether worth something on the order of USD$200 billion to the national economies which rely on reactors for clean electricity. This is a product of the NEI’s 2010 estimate of US$470 million per 1,000 MW unit per year, adjusted for inflation, and the current operating capacity estimated from WNA figures. It’s a ballpark number, but how else to compare nuclear to aviation? Each industry reliably provides a specific, wholly 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 an accident in either, and especially the media’s reactions, are incomparable. Relatedly, only one of the two industries faces sustained, organised, intractable opposition.
From 1950 through 2017 nuclear reactors generated an estimated 81,585 terawatt hours (TWh, 1 billion kWh) of electricity. Kharecha and Hansen calculated in 2013 that just the 1971–2009 portion of this saved the atmosphere some 64 billion tons of additional carbon dioxide, and an average of 76,000 deaths every year from fossil fuel combustion-related sickness and accidents. The “deaths per TWh” of global nuclear was cited as 0.074, lowest out of all energy sources considered (and probably too high “by 2 orders of magnitude”, according to the authors). Thus, even using this overstated rate, the entire 60 year period claimed a hypothetical average of 90 lives annually.
1,500 versus 90. How is aviation not jealous of nuclear’s stats?
The waste. There sure is waste. Planes release theirs straight into the atmosphere, contributing 2% of human-made 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?
Some conventional nuclear projects are criticised for their large upfront costs. So are the latest, biggest airplanes, but no-one calls for the abandonment of flight because new models of planes are expensive.
Of course, we fly at our leisure, boarding aircraft by choice. This is an entirely academic difference in acquiescence relative to nuclear energy, and is a distinction that starts to crumble when considering the rare accidents like Mandala Airlines Flight 091 in 2005, which claimed the lives of forty-nine non-passengers in their own streets and backyards. And we still keep choosing to fly and to live beneath flight paths, while support for existing — and new — power stations is usually strongest from their nearest neighbours.
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 direct terrorist attack on a nuclear plant. While the SuperPhénix reactor was under construction in France, an anti-nuclear environmental group fired RPGs at it.
And as far as plane versus reactor goes, following the September 11 destruction of the World Trade Centre — by hijacked airplanes — independent analysis concluded that even a well-aimed passenger jet wouldn’t get through a reactor’s containment.
But what’s really at the bottom of all this worry? It’s the radiation, right? Nuclear energy has radiation hazards, and air travel doesn’t, right? Wrong. Pilots are getting higher doses than the people living around reactors, because the rather powerful cosmic radiation from space, blocked by atmosphere at sea level, is way stronger at 35,000 feet.
You can bet those power plant neighbours don’t fret about boarding their planes either. In fact, it turns out that exposure from any source at these low levels just isn’t the overwhelming risk that’s been perpetuated for so long.
So on the next plane you catch, take a moment to consider the statistics. It might give you one less thing to worry about.
Oscar Archer holds a PhD in chemistry and has been analysing energy issues for 13 years, focusing on nuclear technology for 4, with a background in manufacturing and QA. By day he works in energy efficiency research & development. He helps out at Adelaide-based Bright New World as Senior Advisor. Find him @OskaArcher on Twitter.