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Infographic of the Day: Just How Deadly Is Nuclear Energy?

Not very, if you compare it to oil or coal.

The Fukushima meltdowns may have derailed hopes that American will be upping its investments in nuclear energy anytime soon. And no wonder: It wasn't but a couple days after the tsunami that you regularly saw misguided "environmentalists" claiming there's no way we can prevent disasters like the one that struck Japan.

But the fact is, these arguments aren't based in fact, and this simple, utterly powerful infographic by famed business writer Seth Godin illustrates why. What you see are the deaths per terawatt hour of energy produced:


Shocking, huh? The data it's drawn from is about as reliable as it gets: The World Health Organization's figures on worker deaths in various industries. As Godin writes:

Vivid is not the same as true. It's far easier to amplify sudden and horrible outcomes than it is to talk about the slow, grinding reality of day to day strife. That's just human nature. Not included in this chart are deaths due to global political instability involving oil fields, deaths from coastal flooding and deaths due to environmental impacts yet unmeasured, all of which skew it even more if you think about it.

This chart unsettles a lot of people, because there must be something wrong with it. Further proof of how easy it is to fear the unknown and accept what we've got.

We're betting that the tragedy in Japan sets back nuclear energy in the U.S. by at least a decade. But make no mistake: That's not because of science or facts. It's because of politics, and an irrational fear we have of nuclear power that's a relic of the 1950s.

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  • Theo Ronbaker

    @Rami, you are dead wrong. No pun intended. Your irrational fear of radiation is not based on facts.

    Cliff is stating facts and you are ranting nonsense opinions that come from god knows where.

    First, Chernobyl did not kill many people. 57 people died within months and just 15 people died of thyroid cancer during 20 years.

    Second, radiation is no so dangerous. People in Hong Kong are exposed to more radiation than people in Japan.

    Third, if radiation is extremely dangerous then why are airplanes, CT scanners, cigarettes, and concrete buildings allowed ?

    "Nuclear power is safest way to make electricity, according to 2007 study - The Washington Post

    At Chernobyl, two people died during the accident and 28 others died of radiation illness in the first four months afterward. (Some estimates of the early deaths put the number as high as 57 ).

    Since then, there have been 6,800 cases of thyroid cancer in people who were children at the time of the accident, according to a recent report by the U.N. Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, with the number still rising. As of 2005, only ***15 were fatal***."

    Hong Kong Radiation Exceeds Tokyo Even After Japan Crisis - Bloomberg

    Infographic of the Day: The Best Radiation Chart We've Seen So Far

  • JA Ginsburg

    When I first read this article, I thought it was written by an industry lobbyist. Then I saw the reference to Seth Godin, who is usually pretty sharp. Good gravy guys...

    I just added an addendum to a blog post on the implications of nuclear disasters for humanitarian response after reading a story in "The Telegraph" about tsunami refugees in the exclusion zone being denied shelter and medical help from fears that they themselves were radioactive:

    There are now over 400 nuclear plants across the world, many aging and many in regions vulnerable to major natural disasters such as earthquakes and / or within the jurisdiction of corrupt / inept governments. (A few days ago, China announced it was selling 30 year-old nuclear tech to Pakistan...)

    The whole truth? All of these energy sources are fraught in the present and threaten the future. A warming earth with rising seas and wilder weather will send millions of climate refugees fleeing to higher, safer ground—human migrations on a scale unimaginable.

    Radioactive refugees have nowhere to go.

    We need to get beyond this devil's choice and invest in better answers. A (dis)infographic such as this one is a red herring that in a bout of superficial cleverness takes us dangerously off-focus.

  • Cliff Kuang

    Hey guys --- Thanks to everyone for chiming in here; I really appreciate the drubbing I've taken (seriously). That said, one point that I do want to make -- which I think I made rather ineptly in the original post -- is that we're using examples of nuclear disasters of the past and CONFLATING them with what has happened at Fukushima, and creating one fuzzy nightmare case against nuclear energy. The situation remains dire, and we may well never know what the death toll will be from this disaster. But it seems to me that in general, we overemphasize extreme cases rather than the typical ones -- and we overemphasize whatever has happened most recently over the remarkable 30 year safety record that nuclear energy has achieved. As an example, just consider France's record with nuclear power.

    What I really don't get -- and continue to be amazed by -- is how nuclear opponents say they're advocating for the environment. If that lobby had been half as powerful in the wake of Three Mile Island, imagine how much better our carbon-emission situation might be today. Looking back, the fact that Three Mile Island set us on 30 year path of coal consumption is a real tragedy.

  • calh0025

    The main issue at present with nuclear power is the persistent risk. If handled properly nuclear power can be very very safe. If not continuously maintained and guarded it becomes very very dangerous. The true risk of nuclear power comes at the time of state collapse. As seen in the fall of the USSR much opportunity for material to escape control occured. Had the USSR completely dissolved into chaos without any political organization it could have been a disaster. We may have designed out much of the risk of plant failure, but nuclear power is a tremendous commitment and cannot ever be abandoned lest we invite terrible consequences.

    The question then is do we think modern states are stable enough to maintain the burden for then several thousand years despite the fact no state has lasted that long? It is sort of like a hand grenade with the pin pulled, just hold the spoon closed and all is well... but I would question the wisdom of walking around with a live armed one in hand.

  • Maria Petrova

    This is INSANELY naive. This is about WORKERS. Not about PEOPLE in general. Need I mention Chernobyl? Killed a handful of workers, but cancer rates in Eastern Europe are through the roof. Coal kills a lot more workers, yes, but that's WORKERS, not people in general. Nuclear energy is far deadlier than coal — considering the wide reach of radiation. I'm alarmed that Godin chooses to focus on WORKERS but claim OVERALL effect.

  • Edhill Ost

    You are INSANELY naive. This post just tells me that you have no clue in the world that coal-plants release SEVERAL HUNDREDS IF NOT THOUSANDS MAGNITUDES more radiation than nuclear-power does.

    • Guess you didn't know that coal contains radioactive components.
    • Guess you didn't know that all those are released into the air when the coal is burned.
    • Guess you didn't know that due to political/industrial shenanigans coal-plants are exempt from radiation-safety regulations due to these radio-active components being "naturally occurring" (well no shit! I thought santa claus placed them there! since he didn't everything is fine!)

    I can go on about how poorly informed you are for hours probably.... Did you know that if you come from (grown up in) an area that has slightly above average radiation levels you have a reduced risk of developing cancer? You can probably never guess why, but for the smarter people out here I will give a clever hint: Why isn't all bacteria antibiotic resistant?

  • Nicole Marie

    I'm slightly confused by the construction of your chart. First off, the data sites TWh, not just watts. Secondly, the death rates are Coal: 161 (avg) Oil: 36 Nuclear: .04, the blocks don't seem to accurately correspond to those figures? Could just be an optical illusion.

  • michaelmousedisqus

    Where's the graphic for having no power at all with the resulting deaths from that scenario?

  • Nathan

    I see no mention in the data for nuclear deaths of the many people who die prematurely due to the mining and refinement process. Nuclear tailings are notoriously damaging to the environment, those downstream, and those doing the mining. However, the mining and refinement phases of the nuclear life cycle are almost never included in any life cycle assessments nor statistics of death and illness, nor costs to taxpayers.

    In addition, there is no mention of the 800,000 liquidators of the Chernobyl disaster--800,000 people who will die prematurely and suffer radiation sickness: They may not all have died yet but all will have shortened lifespans.

    All of these are relevant quality of life issues that need to be included in any assessment or comparison of nuclear (or any, for that matter) energy sources. The same goes for the lame claims regarding nuclear being better for the environment because in its use phase, it emits less carbon dioxide.

    None of this, of course, deals with the social or financial aspects either, which make nuclear power bad for people and really bad for the economy--at least for the governments and their people who underwrite the research, construction, and waste disposal risks. Governments get all of the risk and none of the profits, plus all of the long-term heathcare costs. Anyone who cares about the economy or their taxes shouldn't even consider nuclear an option.

  • lee de cola

    a beautiful example of how a mind-bendingly complicated problem can be distilled into a mindless graphic.

    Lee De Cola
    Data to Insight

  • Temenouzhka Zaharieva

    I wonder, if the assumptions used to produce this information graphic are flawed, should we be careful with his other similar conclusions?

  • Borris Unmüssig

    Good to see how Cliff's undifferentiated statement is filled with substantial information here.
    Yet, his warning to sorrow sort out irrational fears out from this debate is quite important, as the whole discussion is strongly emotionalized. Beside, the discussion about given and already usable alternatives has to be done in an open and honest manner.

    Also check out this:

    Additionally keep in mind that an area around Chernobyl as wide as a big chunk of northern Germany is unfit for human habitation, unfortunately I could not get the exact numbers immediately.

    A fifth of the gross domestic product (GDP) of the Ukrainian state per year goes into payments that became necessary due to the Chernobyl disaster.

    Cliff, I wonder about your irrational and undifferentiated argumentation here.

  • Kevin Shrieve

    Wow, what an intro to this graphic -- supposedly hyper-rational and respecting facts over emotion-driven "environmentalists". You claim that we CAN prevent disasters like the one that just struck Japan? Obviously, recent evidence suggests that stuff happens despite our plans.

    In addition, do you think the effect -- on our generation or future generations -- of accidents or mismanagement of the wastes produced by nuclear power plants was factured into that "utterly powerful infographic"?

    High level nuclear waste produced by nuclear reactors is increasing by about 12,000 metric tons every year. The time frame in question when dealing with radioactive waste ranges from 10,000 to 1,000,000 years (

    Who can give accurate numbers for the impact these wastes will have? How could it be OK to pass on these risks to so many generations so that we can have more electricity today?

  • Matthias Müller

    Cliff, you really should watch that much Fox News. Really. This post is like a prototype definition for stupidity. I guess i will have to link it to wikipedia. Incredible, really i´m speechless!

  • Kevin Shrieve

    Wow, what an intro to these graphics -- presumably hyper-rational and respecting of facts over emotion-driven "environmentalists". You think that we CAN prevent disasters like the one that just struck Japan? Obviously, to those who choose to observe with open eyes, shit happens.

    In addition, do you think the effect -- on our generation or future generations -- of accidents or mismanagement of the wastes produced by nuclear power plants was factured into that "utterly powerful infographic"?

    High level nuclear waste produced by nuclear reactors is increasing by about 12,000 metric tons every year. The time frame in question when dealing with radioactive waste ranges from 10,000 to 1,000,000 years (

    Who can give accurate numbers for the impact these wastes will have? How could it be OK to pass on these risks to so many generations so that we can have more electricity today?

  • shawnparkinson

    I'd be interested in the stats on how many people have died from solar, wind, geothermal in relation to coal, oil and nuclear.

    I'm guessing it's way lower if any at all. Why we don't choose methods of power generation with no harmful side effects boggles my mind.

    If there were stats on the loss of useful land for each method of power I'd like to see that also to make an informed decision.

  • Keith G

    Comeon Cliff, This article is an insult to the typically great writing here. I thought this was a design blog, not a political blog. Sadly, this post reeks of ignorance, and a disgruntled attitude that you are right. The worst part is you use the guise of an infographic to argue for your point.

    While I agree with you in part, the risks of nuclear are the ones that cannot be so easily measured.

  • Chris Reich

    Rationality is the smallest component of the nuclear energy argument. It would be interesting to see an info graphic on what is that people fear about nuclear energy. Waste? We know how to deal with the waste but irrational fear prevents implementation.

    I would compare this to the hysteria vaccinations and autism. No amount of science is going to convince a large group of parents of autistic kids that vaccines did not cause the autism. Because of these anti-vaccination nuts, we are once again seeing measles and chicken pox outbreaks. Shameful.

    The heart of the issue is the poor education of the American public. Uneducated people believe dumb stuff. And it's too bad because ignorance is responsible for more death than all the perceived boogeymen combined.

    Chris Reich

  • Scott Byorum

    We have an irrational fear of nuclear power left over from the 1950s? Oh, that's rich. Guess what? I have an irrational fear of asteroids. I know. It's silly. I mean that whole dinosaur incident happened millions of years ago. Why should I be worried about it now?