The Costs of Major Energy Accidents, 1907 to 2007
29 Apr, 2008 12:11 pm
Conventional energy technologies-- namely nuclear, coal, oil, gas, and hydroelectric power generators-- may kill more people than you think.
The claim that humans are imperfect needs no further citation. It is unsurprising, then, that major energy accidents occur. But what counts as an energy “accident,” especially a “major” one?
The study attempted to answer this question by searching historical archives, newspaper and magazine articles, and press wire reports from 1907 to 2007. The words “energy,” “electricity,” “oil,” “coal,” “natural gas,” “nuclear,” “renewable,” and “hydroelectric” were searched in the same sentence as the words “accident,” “disaster,” “incident,” “failure,” “meltdown,” “explosion,” “spill,” and “leak.” The study then narrowed results according to five criteria:
- The accident must have involved an energy system at the production/generation, transmission, and distribution phase. This means it must have occurred at an oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear, renewable, or hydroelectric plant, its associated infrastructure, or within its fuel cycle (mine, refinery, pipeline, enrichment facility, etc.);
- It must have resulted in at least one death or property damage above $50,000 (in constant dollars that has not been normalized for growth in capital stock);
- It had to be unintentional and in the civilian sector, meaning that military accidents and events during war and conflict are not covered, nor are intentional attacks. The study only counted documented cases of accident and failure;
- It had to occur between August, 1907 and August, 2007;
- It had to be verified by a published source;
Unsurprisingly, the data concerning major energy accidents is inhomogeneous. While responsible for less than 1 percent of total energy accidents, hydroelectric facilities claimed 94 percent of reported fatalities. Looking at the gathered data, the total results on fatalities are highly dominated one accident in which the Shimantan Dam failed in 1975 and 171,000 people perished.
Only three of the listed 279 accidents resulted in more than 1,000 deaths, and each of these varied in almost every aspect. One involved the structural failure of a dam more than 30 years ago in China; one involved a nuclear meltdown in the Ukraine two decades ago; and one involved the rupture of a petroleum pipeline in Nigeria around ten years ago.
The study found that only a small amount of accidents caused property damages greater than $1 billion, with most accidents below the $100 million mark. The second largest source of fatalities, nuclear reactors, is also the second most capital intense, supporting the notion that the larger a facility the more grave (albeit rare) the consequences of its failure. The inverse seems true for oil, natural gas, and coal systems: they fail far more frequently, but have comparatively fewer deaths and damage per each instance of failure.
While hydroelectric plants were responsible for the most fatalities, nuclear plants rank first in terms of their economic cost, accounting for 41 percent of all property damage. Oil and hydroelectric come next at around 25 percent each, followed by natural gas at 9 percent and coal at 2 percent.
By energy source, the most frequent energy system to fail is natural gas, followed by oil, nuclear, coal, and then hydroelectric. Ninety-one accidents occurred at natural gas facilities, accounting for 33 percent of the total; oil, 71 accidents at 25 percent; nuclear, 63 accidents at 23 percent; coal, 51 accidents at 18 percent; hydroelectric, 3 accidents at 1 percent.
Therefore, energy accidents exact a significant toll on human health and welfare, the natural environment, and society. Such accidents are now part of our daily routines, a somewhat intractable feature of our energy-intensive lifestyles. They are an often-ignored negative externality associated with energy conversion and use. This conclusion may seem quite banal to some, given how fully integrated energy technologies are into modern society. Yet energy systems continue to fail despite drastic improvements in design, construction, operation, and maintenance, as well as the best of intentions among policymakers and operators.
Perhaps one striking difference between energy accidents and other “normal” risks facing society concerns the involuntary aspects of energy accidents. Alcoholics, rock climbers, construction workers, soldiers, and gigolos all take a somewhat active and voluntary role in their risky behavior. Those suffering from nuclear meltdowns, exploding gas clouds, and petroleum-contaminated water do not.
The death and destruction associated with large-scale energy technologies is significant. Tallied as a whole, the 182,156 energy-related deaths total more than twice the number that died in the Vietnam War. Indeed, if averaged out for each year, energy technologies have been responsible for the equivalent of a September 11, 2001 happening every 1.65 years, year after year.
The fact that such deaths are systemic means that they can be predicted to occur, with certainty, well into the future. Therein also lies hope, for recurring events can be anticipated and responded to. Their “high probability” means that they can be more easily predicted, planned for, and minimized than unforeseen and catastrophic events.
Benjamin K. Sovacool, “The Costs of Failure: A Preliminary Assessment of Major Energy Accidents, 1907 to 2007,” Energy Policy 36(5) (May, 2008), pp. 1802-1820.