Battery Deaths Put Nuclear Safety In Context
Lithium batteries kill many more people than nuclear plants. Why, then, aren't we scared of them?
For decades, critics of nuclear power plants have pointed to their unique danger. When there is a loss of water coolant for the reactor cores, plant operators can lose control, leaving them to melt, and potentially spew toxic particulate matter into the environment. Nuclear accidents are unique in requiring people to “shelter-in-place,” and close windows and vents, to avoid breathing radiant particulate matter. And nuclear accidents can unfold in unpredictable and mysterious ways, such as by creating hydrogen gas explosions, like the kinds that occurred during the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011.
And yet nuclear plants remain the safest way to make electricity and one of the most benign of all human activities. Nobody has ever died of nuclear power in the United States, nobody will die from the radiation from the Fukushima accident in 2011, and only roughly 200 people will have their lives shortened by the fire and radiation from the Chernobyl fire. And because nuclear plants prevent the burning of fossil fuels, the climate scientist James Hansen calculates that they have saved nearly 2 million lives to date.
The ability to release intense amounts of heat by splitting atoms did indeed bring a unique danger into the world. But what’s most unique is killing so few despite scaring so many. Far more people were hurt from the too-broad and too long-lasting evacuations of Fukushima and Chernobyl than from their radiant particulates.
And now a series of deadly accidents reveal that even lithium batteries are more deadly than nuclear power. Last Saturday, a fire started by a lithium battery in an electric scooter killed an 8-year-old girl in New York City. In New York City alone, lithium battery fires in 2021 killed 3 and injured 57, while in the first half of 2022, they killed 5 people and injured 73.
Meanwhile, a fire Tuesday morning at a Tesla battery facility in Moss Landing in Monterey County, California emitted so much toxic smoke that the Fire and Sheriff Departments issued a shelter-in-place order, asking people to close windows and vents, and closed several roads. Contrary to widespread perception, shelter-in-place orders are not unique to nuclear accidents but are also used to protect the public from chemical fires and other accidents. It was the third fire since the facility opened two years ago.
Lithium battery fires have, like nuclear accidents, been unpredictable, mysterious, and difficult to manage. The battery fires that grounded the first Boeing 787 Dreamliners in 2013 were difficult to control, and mysterious, A Tesla that had been in a Sacramento junkyard for three weeks spontaneously, repeatedly, and mysteriously caught fire. “The batteries would keep reigniting the fire,” said firefighters, who only were able to stop them by flipping the Tesla onto its side.
As such, lithium batteries are as dangerous and more deadly than nuclear power plants. This is obviously true in the U.S., where nuclear power has never killed anyone. But it is likely also true globally, or will soon be true, given the rising death toll from lithium fires.
All of which begs a question: if lithium batteries are deadlier than nuclear, why is nuclear so much more feared?