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Director Oliver Stone and Prof. Joshua Goldstein have created a film named "Nuclear Now", arguing in favor of installing more (modern) nuclear power plants to combat climate change and generally. In this interview on the Hill's 'Rising TV', Prof. Goldstein makes the following claim around 19:10 :

... you know, a coal plant, on a good day when it's operating normally, kills more people in a few weeks than nuclear power has ever killed...

now, naturally, one has to quantify what size/output coal plant and how many weeks are a few weeks, but - how true is this statement?


Note: Regardless of whether this is true or not, that is a manipulative statement in at least several ways: The debate is not coal-vs-nuclear but more nuclear-vs-renewables-plus-storage; coal technology can likely be improved so that the pollution effects are reduced to almost zero, just like nuclear technology can likely be improved to what its proponents argue for; and finally and most importantly - the counting of deaths should be of estimated deaths, not just the actual deaths so far: If a nuclear plant has a X% change of emitting large amounts of radioactive material into the ocean or a wide populated area, so as to cause N deaths, but it has never actually done so, it's true that it has killed nobody, but its expected kills are N * X% (simplistically).

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    According to an NGOs report titled Europe’s dark cloud: How coal-burning countries make their neighbours sick emissions of coal-fired power stations were responsible for over 22,900 premature deaths in 2013.
    – Graffito
    May 12, 2023 at 17:57
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    The report titled "The Health Effects of Chernobyl" by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) communicates on a number between 10,000 and 25,000 additional fatalities due to cancer and leukaemia.
    – Graffito
    May 12, 2023 at 18:13
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    @NigelJ “The only fatal nuclear accident...” I think that going too technical won't change the overall data. True, there had been fatalities from multiple criticality accidents (e.g., SL-1), but the number is perhaps under 20 (I undercount 8), negligible compared to Chernobyl, which may be, from trustworthy sources, in the 3,000‒30,000 range. The geometric mean is a good estimator for an order-of-mag discrepancy. 3MI and Fukushima had no fatalities. The meaning of your concern hinges on that of “unsubstantiated”—did he not provide sources, or his numbers can be countered by sources. May 13, 2023 at 0:30
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    I don't understand why everyone is focusing only on whether the number attributed to nuclear power is too low, and not to where the number for coal comes from. Are we actually talking about deaths directly attributable to nearby coal power plants here, or is this some kind of "excess death" total based on extrapolations of climate change? The whole comparison is meaningless unless some definition is given for what causes we're considering.
    – IMSoP
    May 13, 2023 at 13:45
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    I would argue that is unanswerable because "pollution kills" is an imprecise statement. Air pollution shortens lives, just like low-level radiation, if we're talking about just operation and accidents that affect more than the workers (and not mining etc.) For pollution it makes more sense to count years of life lost than some arbitrary threshold where you count someone as killed by air pollution (or not), someone killed by cancer as possibly killed by radiation (or not), etc. The answers below all have this problem (including the fairly upvoted by deleted one). May 13, 2023 at 20:15

1 Answer 1

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The claim as made in the original quote is fairly easy to debunk with sources from the comments because it compares deaths due to all nuclear power over all time with deaths of a single coal power plant over a few weeks.

First nuclear from user Graffito: 'a report titled "The Health Effects of Chernobyl" by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) communicates on a number between 10,000 and 25,000 additional fatalities due to cancer and leukaemia.' We will use the 10,000 as a low estimate for total nuclear deaths.

Now consider the country as Poland as a randomly chosen example. There are 50 coal power plants in Poland unless I miscounted the list. Hence according to this claim coal power plants in Poland would have to kill more than 500,000 people every few weeks. Poland has around 38 million inhabitants and a death rateof 13.6 per 1000 per year which gives approximately 516,000 deaths per year in total from all causes combined. So whatever the number of deaths due to coal power plants in Poland actually is, it is certainly several orders of magnitude smaller than claimed.

One could argue that Polish power plants kill people in other countries but other countries have coal power plants as well so this wouldn't change the answer that dramatically. The original claim is so way over the top wrong that no accurate accounting of deaths due to coal power plants is needed to debunk it.

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  • What's your reference for less than 1% Polish people dying annually from deaths attributable to coal power plants?
    – einpoklum
    May 16, 2023 at 18:04
  • @einpoklum Googled the numbers, adjusted them slightly and added a reference.
    – quarague
    May 16, 2023 at 18:21
  • Straight and to the point without a lot of sophistry.
    – einpoklum
    May 16, 2023 at 18:39
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    It is perhaps worth noticing that the IPPNW report you are linking to is not a reviewed publication and disagrees significantly with estimated death tolls published by WHO. The report even mentions this in the introduction and claims that WHO has manipulated their own data. I am not able to judge either the numbers in this report, nor the numbers from WHO, but the report sounds slightly fishy. May 23, 2023 at 15:26
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    @Tor-EinarJarnbjo Note that the WHO report estimates 4,000 deaths due to Chernobyl. Replacing the estimate of 10,000 with 4,000 does not change the conclusion of this answer - for the claim to be true, there would have to be more deaths due to coal plants in Poland per year than total deaths in Poland per year.
    – isaacg
    Jul 11, 2023 at 20:36

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