What is the Safest and Cleanest Source of Energy on Earth?

by Piya Sengupta3 months ago
Picture What is the Safest and Cleanest Source of Energy on Earth?

All energy sources have long-term negative impacts on the environment, but we need to look for the least negative among the bad. While some, like fossil fuels, are hazardous, others like wind, solar and nuclear, are the safer and cleaner sources of energy to heal our planet. If we pay attention to the negative impacts of energy on human health and climate, a single energy source stands out as a supervillain easily outstripping the rest in terms of the catastrophe it unleashes. That energy source is coal, the dirtiest and the most unsafe fossil fuel. Surprisingly, on the other hand, winning the energy race in terms of safety and cleanliness is nuclear energy.

However, this energy debate requires a little more explanation. For human civilization to function with all the comforts and advantages of modern life, energy is indispensable. But at what cost? Let us go through the list and find out the safest and cleanest sources of energy that can play a role in healing our planet.

Energy is a blessing and a curse at the same time. It gives us massive benefits, but not without significant disadvantages.

Telegraph poles
Telegraph poles.

Talking about energy can be tricky. It plays a crucial role in centuries of human progress and is fundamental to almost every challenge and opportunity that we face today. The use of fossil fuels has helped the evolution of society, making work more productive, and enabling people to enjoy better living conditions. Today, humans in the world cannot function without energy. We cannot even fathom how integral it is in our daily lives. But just like any good thing in life, it comes at a cost.

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Right now, in our consumption of fossil fuel energy, we have reached a stage where the dangers cannot be ignored. Not only do they produce massive CO2 emissions and accelerate global warming, but they also cause millions of deaths every year. Each energy source comes with its baggage. Some may cause more damage than others, but no energy source is 100% clean and safe.

How does energy kill people?

Underground coal mine
Mine harvesters extracting coal deep underground. Image credit: DVKi/shutterstock.com

Directly, accidents account for a large percentage of deaths that are attributed to energy sources. Coal mining, for example, is hazardous and is accountable for a lot of accidents. From roof collapses and suffocation to gas poisoning and gas explosions, the possibilities are frightfully endless. In the same way, the oil and gas industries also witness a lot of accidental deaths. Wind and solar energy contribute substantially less to deadly accident totals, but they also have their share of tragedies. Solar panels and wind turbines are only responsible for a minuscule percentage of unfortunate incidents.

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When we talk about hydropower accidents, a single calamity stands out. Typhoon Nina in 1975, washed out the Shimantan Dam in China, collapsing the Banqiao Dam. It formed one of the largest floods in history, submerging 30 cities and killing over 200,000 people. When we hear about nuclear energy, our minds are prejudiced to fearfully remember accidents like Chornobyl and Fukushima. But even including the direct death toll from these accidents, nuclear power still remains the safest power source. But the real evil that lurks over our everyday existence is the poisoning that fossil fuels cause in the air. Pollution is the slow and silent killer, accounting for more than eight million deaths in 2018 alone.

It may come as a surprise, but nuclear energy is by far the safest and cleanest source of energy.

safer and cleaner sources of energy
Safer and cleaner sources of energy. Image credit: ourworldindata.org

History is testimony to the fact that nuclear power has the potential to cause substantial damage to the environment, as well as human lives. But statistics point out that it is also the safest form of energy, causing the lowest number of deaths compared to the other sources. Strict regulations and proactive, controlled, safety measures make nuclear energy comparatively safe. As per a report produced by Forbes, nuclear energy has a global mortality rate of just 90 people killed per trillion kWh produced. And this data includes the deaths from the Chornobyl and Fukushima disasters. Both these disasters happened due to human error and are likely to not be repeated ever again.

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Nuclear energy has drama. When it does cause accidents, the impact is huge, and people remember it much longer. Our minds don’t dwell for long on air pollution that destroys lungs, causes asthma, and eventually death. It happens gradually. But Chornobyl? The emotional impact stays forever. It is featured in several movies, web series, books, and documentaries, not letting anyone think rationally above their emotions.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has set high safety standards. There are more than 200 separate safety rules that nuclear facilities must follow. It is minutely detailed, starting from installation to removing nuclear waste. So, nuclear energy has so far been quite consistent in safety.

But at the end of the day, fear looms large. The threat of a nuclear disaster creates panic. In fact, after the Fukushima incident in Japan, when the plant’s cooling systems failed following a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami causing three reactors to melt down, Germany passed legislation to phase out all nuclear energy power by 2022. Because of this, Germany has been releasing an additional 36 million tons of CO2 annually and causing premature deaths of 1100 people per year due to air pollution.

What makes nuclear the safest energy source?

Nuclear Power Station
A nuclear power station.

To understand why it is the safest and the cleanest, we need to know how nuclear plants work. Sure enough, like other power stations, nuclear plants also use a source of heat and turn it into steam, which then turns the turbines of a generator. But nuclear energy uses a process called “nuclear fission” which takes place in the element uranium and plutonium, which is readily available on our planet. This method of producing heat is a zero-carbon release process, unlike burning coal, gas, or wood which produces carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Nuclear fission produces containable waste, which means that it can be contained in one place instead of dumping it into the environment.

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In addition to nuclear energy, modern renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal energy sources are relatively cleaner and safer forms of energy if measured on the spectrum. Hydropower, solar, and wind energy all have meager death rates compared to the rest. As per data released by Our World in Data, nuclear energy results in 99.9% fewer deaths than brown coal; 99.8% fewer than coal; 99.7% fewer than oil; and 97.6% fewer than gas. Wind and solar are just as safe.

Did you know that the energy generated by one uranium fuel pellet is equal to one ton of coal, 149 gallons of oil, and 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas?

We can choose the energy source that is best for us, and the planet to ensure a brighter future.

Air pollution
Air pollution

Safe and clean always go hand-in-hand when it comes to energy sources. If it is cleaner, it is going to be safer for us. Coal is the dirtiest fuel, and unfortunately, coal, along with oil, and gas dominates global energy production. But there is hope. We can slowly move away from the more harmful energy sources and slowly transform ourselves into a more renewable energy-loving planet. There will be fewer deaths from pollution, accidents, and fewer health hazards in the long run.

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But the possibility of having the global energy grid powered by 100% renewable energy is still many years away, and with our boundless demand for energy, that is time we simply do not have. Let us hope between nuclear energy that can eliminate fossil fuels, and renewable energy sources with low-cost setups and zero emissions, the world leaders can take action quickly to save the only planet we have.

Also Read:
Another Side of New York City in the 1970s, Before a Three-Decade-Long Environmental Clean-Up

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