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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.
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Oh really, you don't count accidents in cola mines which produce coal for electrical generating plants, did you. For 2004 China reported 6,027 deaths in coal mining accidents. In 2006, 4,749 Chinese coal miners were killed by accidents. 3,786 died in Chinese coal mining accidents last year. Thousands of American coal miners have died between 1907 and 2007. Many were involved in mining coal for electrical generation.
Clearly if you count accidents coal mining accidents related to electrical generation far more accidents and deaths can be attributed to coal than all other energy sources combined. Of course you are hiding this fact because it does not fit your anti-nuclear agenda. As usual youo are cooking the books on nuclear power.
Shouldn?t these deaths be included in calculating the risk of coal technology?
In the spirit of open dialogue and debate, I am responding to your comments here (on Scitizen) and on your blog. But I am incredibly wary. While it is obvious you actually never read my study on energy accidents, that uncomfortable fact did not stop you from attacking it. For someone dedicated to ?educating people to overcome irrational fears,? this is embarrassing bordering on disingenuous.
I also find it disconcerting that every time I have responded to your comments on my Scitizen column, you pretend that I haven?t and even state so on your blog. You?ve called me incompetent and lazy, but what you?re doing?attacking someone without even reading their work, and then ignoring their responses?is much worse.
Now, to the study at hand and your comments on Scitizen. You claim that the 1975 dam accident involved the failure of 62 dams, not 1. Had you read my study, you would already know that the failure of the Shimantan hydroelectric facility caused all of the other dams to fail. Shimantan was a Soviet-style hydroelectric facility constructed in the early 1950s on the Ru River. Engineers designed it to be part of a flood control and electrification scheme intended to reduce the incidence of severe flooding in the Huai River Basin and provide local villages with energy services. In early August 1975, Typhoon Nina dumped almost 8 inches of rain into the Basin in 24 hours, exceeding the yearly precipitation rate, collapsing buildings and destroying thousands of villages. Sedimentation clogged the sluice gates on many of the adjacent reservoirs and dams, worsening the problem, and telegraphs to open nearby dams failed to reach any of the facilities because of the storm.
While Chinese policymakers were debating whether to open dams upstream and downstream by air strike to relieve the water pressure on Shimantan, shortly after midnight on August 8 the dam failed to handle more than twice its capacity and released 1,670 million tons of water in just five hours, creating a massive tidal wave that cascaded into the failure of 61 other dams. Approximately 16 billion tons of water were released in total, resulting in a flood wave 6 miles wide and 23 feet high that traveled at nearly 30 miles per hour as it destroyed 4,600 square miles of property. Seven county seats were inundated, 6 million buildings collapsed, and 11 million people lost their homes. The Hydrology Department of Henan Province reports that 26,000 people died immediately and another 145,000 succumbed to fatal injuries during subsequent epidemics and famine.
Also, had you read the study, you would know I never claim that nuclear caused more deaths than hydro. I said that it involved more property losses, and for that number, you?ll need to see table A1 of the study, which lists every single accident investigated along with a short description, the amount of damage, and associated mortality/morbidity. It also shows every single one of the 63 nuclear plant accidents. I?d be happy to send you a copy?just email me?but I do find it deeply disturbing that you presume to know what the study says (or doesn?t say) without reading it.
And yes, the study does include coal mines?which you obviously would know if you had, once again, read the study?but it only includes those accidents that could be confirmed. I mention explicitly the Chinese deaths in the study, but I also mention how since they could not be verified by independent sources they had to be discounted. I spent a good part of the first half of the study talking about its methodology, especially how it will be very conservative (better to underestimate than to overestimate, I say).
You also claim I ignore data when it doesn?t fit into my ?anti-nuclear agenda.? Had you actually read some of my other works (also published in peer reviewed journals), you would have discovered that I am not anti-nuclear. I have stated numerous times that nuclear plants are a superior alternative to coal and other fossil fueled plants. For instance, I said this in an article published in the Springer journal Policy Sciences:
While substantial parts of the fossil fuel waste stream are released into the environment (in the form of stack gases and particulates), the waste from nuclear power is seen as much easier to manage and control. Newer nuclear technologies appear to be much cheaper and safer than fossil fueled alternatives .. The impact on human health from fossil fuel combustion ? is much more immediately drastic than nuclear power since nuclear waste becomes less toxic with time as radioactive materials decay, whereas the chemicals emitted from coal combustion often become quickly ingested by humans and other organisms. One study even found that the waste generated by a large nuclear plant per year was 2 million times smaller by weight and a billion times smaller by volume than wastes from a coal-burning plant.
The place we disagree is between nuclear and renewables/energy efficiency; but we both seem to be on the same side against fossil fuels (another reason I find it so odd that you are so threatened by me).
As for the claims about my study not on Scitizen but on your blog, almost all of the accidents you mention?the one in Nigeria, gas and oil fires?are included.
Ultimately, whenever I publish something in a journal or on a website, it is my responsibility to defend it. While I certainly don?t agree that personally attacking people is the best way to move forward, it is important that we have discussions like this. That said, Charles, you need to hold yourself to a higher standard. Attacking a study that you haven?t read is, simply put, shameful. You?re better than that.
We can certainly continue to have discussions in the future, but only if you actually read my work and if you are open and honest with your blog readers. Otherwise, I won?t bother wasting my time in the future.
You are absolutely correct--emissions from fossil fuel power plants is a serious issue. While the methodology of the study can always be questioned, the deaths from coal emissions were deemed not to be accidental (i.e., they do not result from some sort of malfunction or technical failure), thus they were excluded.
Now you complain that I did not read your Energy Policy paper, and this is true. But you failed to provide a link to it. I looked for your paper n the internet and was unable to access it. Thus your Energy Policy paper is a black box. You read things out from it and tell us that they are true, but I have no way checking on anything. All I have to go on is your Scitizen account. My critique then is of what you say in the Scitizen account, which I tried as best I could to make sense of.
In your Scitizen "Oppenion" peice, you state:
From 1907 to 2007, a new study finds that 279 major energy accidents in the coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectric, and nuclear sectors have been responsible for $41 billion in damages and 182,156 deaths.
Now exactly what does that mean? Between 1918 and the end of the Soviet Union energy related accidents went not publicly reported in the Soviet Union. Accidents, however were reported in archives. In order to get an accurate picture of energy related accidents you have to go beyond what is published in the newspapers. You have to do archival research. Clearly your method falls short of providing an accurate picture of energy related accidents. You claim to have found accounts of records of 279 major energy related accidents between 1907 and 2007. I'll wager that if you visited the city of Austin, Texas and conducted research in the Libraries of the University of Texas you would find published records for more than 279 major energy related accidents in Texas between 1907 and 2007. I'll wager that if you visited the state Library and Archives and archives of various state agencies, you will find records of dozens and perhaps hundreds of major energy sector accidents that went unreported by the print media.
You state, "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; . . ." Well not all of them, probably at best only a small and unrepresenative sample of them. Had you acknowledged that in your Scitizen account, I would have little grounds to question your findings.
Now it is quite improbable that you have even an exhaustive and inclusive list of documented energy related accidents in the United States. Energy related accidents, which would meet your criteria are quite common in Texas. I recall witnessing a pipeline fire in North Dallas some 15 years ago. The fire was quite impressive, and occurred very close to an office building which was undoubtedly damaged by the heat. $50,000 worth of damage was done, I am sure. In 2005 a gas tanker tanker wrecked, exploded and burned in Dallas a freeway was shut down for hours, and the cost of the cleanup would have undoubtedly exceeded $50,000, In 2007 another tanker wrecked, exploded and burned on I-35 north of Dallas. Again the Interstate was shut down for hours, and an expensive clean up occurred. There have been fires at filling stations. Were I to try to make an exhaustive list, I could go on and on for weeks or even months working on it.
There are also accidents due to natural gas leaks, Houses and buildings have been blown up, people killed, The New London School explosion of 1937 was caused by a natural gas leak, and killed at least 300 people, mostly children. Coal train accidents are common, An accident involving a coal train caused $1,000.000 in damages at Cactus, Texas in 2006. Thus I can only conclude that "major" accidents are far more common than the numbers reported in your study.
This video shows a major natural gas related accident west of Fort Worth:
This video is from Houston:
Your account of the 1975 Chinese dam disaster, ignores the fact that the Chines Authorities were warned that the larger Banqiao Dam was about to fail hours before the Shimantan Dam failed. Although the Shimantan Dam failure triggered the collapse of the Banqiao Dam, the real cause of the disaster, was a huge rain event, which the Chinese dams were not constructed to withstand.
All you had to do was ask me for a copy of the study, and I would have provided it (and still will if you email me). My contact information is listed quite openly in the very same bio you cut and pasted from the Scitizen website onto your blog. The article, also, is in no way a black box. As I am sure you know, most academic articles are not freely available on the internet (although I wish they were), but they are available in thousands of libraries. Simply travel to any local university and I bet their library subscribes to the journal Energy Policy. Plus, most scholars and analysts I?ve met are very happy to distribute their research. It only takes a request, and perhaps a little time.
Now, almost all of the concerns you mention in your most recent response are discussed, quite transparently, in the article. Heck, the title of the study even has the words ?preliminary? in it for a reason. Naturally, I couldn?t just cut and paste the whole study onto Scitizen for length and copyright reasons, so I merely summarized it there.
The problem I have, one that I urge you to take very seriously, is when you attack the study (which you never read) by reading only a 1-page summary of it. I appreciate you making the clarification that you never read it now, but when you say ?I cannot imagine that a Sovacool article of such poor quality slipped past Energy Policy readers without some awareness of its failings? it sure sounds like you did?and, being rhetorically gifted, I am sure you knew that then.
I?m always up for fair and transparent discussions of energy policy, but those discussions have to be open, honest, and rigorous. This is why publishing a peer reviewed article is so challenging. If you, Charles, are more careful in the future and tone down the personal attacks, I bet you could present your own ideas and research in the academic literature. Publishing a journal article, however, is much different than scribbling down some sentences for a blog. If you take the time to do it, though, I would be the first to congratulate you?and would also take the time and effort to continue the debate there.
Data summeries, such as the number of accidents, the number of deaths and the property loss should have also been qualified, and in many cases the limitations of your data would preclude even the appearance of a definitive conclusion. You discuss "182,156 energy-related deaths" without qualification, even though that number is based on a preliminary and incomplete data set. You make statements such as, "energy technologies have been responsible for the equivalent of a September 11, 2001 happening every 1.65 years, year after year." But if your data set is preliminary and incomplete, such statements are not legitimate inferences.
I have no disagreement with the purpose which you express in the last paragraph, which are laudable. I would, however, think that a literature review on previous attempts to study energy system failures would have served you better than constructing an incomplete data set. You have perhaps performed such a review, and if you have, some reference to it would serve as an indicator that you are not trying to reinvent the wheel.
Finally I want to comment on the academic custom of posting comments on off internet papers on web sites intended for the general public. I can understand that academic journals may want to recover some of their expenses from internet readers. But there is nothing in this practice that prevent scholars from writing extended accounts of their research for internet posting. That is one function of blogs. I am not an academic scholar, and I have little patience with the barriers academics erect to easy public access to their work. At one point I was willing to chase down papers published in obscure professional journals, with the consequence that I often had to visit the libraries of several universities in my search. You cannot play the game both ways. If you enter the Internet arena of public discourse, you need to play by Internet rules. If you refer to your research in discussions meant for a broad audience, you need to set out a publicly accessible account of your research even if that means that you have to write a second paper for the Internet.
In my Scitizen post about the Energy Policy study, I never once claimed (or even slightly gave the impression) that the op-ed was somehow equivalent to the study/article itself. In essence, the op-ed is entirely about the study. It summarizes its conclusions, talks about some of its methodology, and then provides the reference for those that want to learn more. It would be one thing if I wrote an op-ed making the claims made in the Scitizen post without referencing or referring to the study. But this op-ed let everyone know it was just a sample, and then directed them where to go for the real thing.
Moreover, talking specifically about the study?s estimate of 182,156 deaths, if anything this number is grossly underestimated. It?s incomplete by excluding accidents, meaning that an equivalent 9-11 probably happens much more frequently than 1.65 years. (Also, there is a brief literature review in the study as you suspected).
To your final concern, yes, scholars can and should use the internet to discuss the full merits of their research, but Scitizen cannot be that place, since it is limited to op-ed style pieces. In essence, we?ve kind of done that in our additional discussions?but much time and rancour could have been avoided if you read my study first, since it covered almost all of your concerns. Simply put, I ask that you take the Scitizen piece for what it is?and op-ed that talks about a study. There certainly must be a place for such things in both the internet and energy policy debates. If posting such a thing is not playing by your internet rules, I suppose I have to ask what those rules are, who set them, and what their value ultimately is.
A good point. And if you read a short piece summarizing a study but not the study itself, refrain from attacking the latter.