Media coverage of the Tokyo nuclear reactor leak makes it seem like the worst kind of power plant disaster that you would ever face. But when you look at the actual statistics and history of similar disasters, nuclear power plants are not the most dangerous energy sources – even when terrible accidents happen.
We’ve put together a list of five of the worst power plant disasters in recent history, measured by death toll, monetary damage, and regions affected. The lesson? The issue isn’t so much the kind of energy you use, but how you design the power plants that contain it.
As you can see, when accidents happen, the deadliest and costliest source of energy is water – especially when it’s held back by poorly designed dams. The Chernobyl disaster doesn’t come close to the damage done when a dam at a hydroelectric plant bursts.
Oil and natural gas are among the most expensive energy sources in terms of damage done.
In addition, we have only measured the cost to human life here. The Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – both enormously expensive oil industry disasters – destroyed enormous amounts of wildlife on land and in the water, even if the human toll was low.
1975: Shimantan/Banqiao Dam Failure Type of power: Hydroelectric Human lives lost: 171,000 Cost: $US8,700,000,000 What happened: Shimantan Dam in China’s Henan province fails and releases 15.738 billion tons of water, causing widespread flooding that destroys 18 villages and 1500 homes and induces disease epidemics and famine
1979: Morvi Dam Failure Type of power: Hydroelectric Human lives lost: 1500 (estimated) Cost: $US1,024,000,000 What happened: Torrential rain and unprecidented flooding caused the Machchu-2 dam, situated on the Machhu river, to burst. This sent a wall of water through the town of Morvi in the Indian State of Gujarat.
1998: Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Jess Oil Pipeline Explosion Type of power: Oil Human lives lost: 1078 Cost: $US54,000,000 What happened:Petroleum pipeline ruptures and explodes, destroying two villages and hundreds of villagers scavenging gasoline.
1944: East Ohio Gas Company Type of power: Liquified natural gas (LNG) Human lives lost: 130 Cost: $US890,000,000 What happened: Explosion at LNG facility destroys one square mile of Cleveland, OH.
2007: Monongah Coal Mine Type of power: Coal Human lives lost: 362 Cost: $US162,000,000 What happened: Underground explosion traps workers and destroys railroad bridges leading into the mine.
Compare these to:
1986: Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Type of power: Nuclear Human lives lost: 4056 Cost: $US6,700,000,000 What happened: Mishandled reactor safey test at Chernobyl nuclear reactor causes steam explosion and meltdown, necessitating the evacuation of 300,000 people from Kiev, Ukraine and dispersing radioactive materials across Europe.
NOTE: Monetary damage is measured in 1996 US dollars, except in accidents since that time measured in the dollar values of that year.
A lot of this research was based on public policy professor Andrew Sovacool’s extremely informative monograph “The Accidental Century,” which looks at power plant disasters in the twentieth century in great detail.
Reporting by Robert T. Gonzalez
Photo via AP