The impact pathway also includes what happens to the public — collisions with coal trains; asthma, respiratory disease and heart attacks caused by smokestack soot and gases; and emissions’ effects on agricultural production.
Health consequences are measured two ways.
Occupational deaths in mines, oil rigs or power plants are counted directly. Death and illness in the public is determined by epidemiological studies, such as ones estimating the fraction of hospital admissions for emphysema that can be attributed to air pollution. Those impacts are then given a monetary cost that is added to the price tag of a kilowatt hour of electricity. (The cost is the value of a life lost by premature death, or diminished by illness, that economists use in other analyses.)
The calculations can be very fine.
In “Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal,” published this year by a team of 12 researchers led by Paul R. Epstein of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, the ledger included .02 cents per kilowatt hour for mental retardation caused by mercury in coal-plant emissions.
Using similar methods, Markandya and his co-author in the Lancet study, Paul Wilkinson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, found that in Europe coal is responsible for .12 deaths from accidents, 25 deaths from pollution and 225 cases of serious illness per terawatt (1,000 billion kilowatt) hour of electricity generated. In comparison, nuclear causes .02 accidental deaths, .05 pollution deaths and .22 cases of illness.
This human health cost is much higher in some parts of the world than others.
It’s especially high in China, where three-quarters of the electricity is made by burning coal, mining accidents kill about 6,000 people a year, and hundreds of millions of people are affected by air pollution. In some inland cities, the economic cost to human health of making electricity from coal is as much as seven times higher than the cost of generating the electricity, according to a calculation by Stefan Hirschberg at the Paul Scherrer Institutin Switzerland, which has done energy system analysis for the European Commission.
Nuclear power’s advantage over fossil fuels is even more dramatic when carbon dioxide emissions are considered.
Many experts think greenhouse gases are a future threat to health. Some say the threat is already here, and point to 30,000 heat-related deaths in Europe in August 2003 as evidence. Coal produces 1,290 grams of CO
per kilowatt hour in direct (smokestack) and indirect (mining, transport) emissions, while nuclear produces 30, according to the Lancet study.