SUMMARY
INTRODUCTION

ENERGY MYTHS

ENVIRONMENTAL MYTHS

OPEN QUESTIONS AND OVERLOOKED REALITIES

POLICY IMPLICATIONS
APPENDIX


 

 

 

 

OPEN QUESTIONS AND OVERLOOKED REALITIES

WHICH ENERGY SOURCE IS THE SAFEST TO PRODUCE AND USE?

The responses to this question suggest that conventional wisdom has settled around the relative dangers of various sources of energy. Two of every three respondents think that renewable energies such as wind, solar, and hydropower are the safest to produce and use.

In truth, every energy source has dangers and risks. Nuclear power relies on radioactive materials that are potentially lethal if handled imprudently. Coal is dangerous to scoop out of underground mines, as demonstrated by the 2005 tragedies in West Virginia and Kentucky that claimed more than a dozen lives. Petroleum entails such hazards as oil spills and explosions. Fossil-fuel combustion, meanwhile, is believed to contribute to global warming.

Renewable energy technologies are not completely safe, either. Hydroelectric dams kill fish, divert rivers, and threaten ecosystems with soil erosion. Congressional opponents of a proposed offshore New England wind farm have suggested that its turbines would disrupt the navy’s sonar, putting our national security at risk. And while the operation of solar panels is eminently safe, their manufacture requires mining huge quantities of materials and refining them in ways that release toxins and metals into the atmosphere.

All else being equal, renewables are in some respects safer than conventional alternatives such as nuclear energy or coal from the standpoint of generating power; the gentle breeze or the noonday sun will always be less dangerous than an exposed uranium rod. But all else isn’t equal.

When contemplating the relative safety of energy production and use, we should also consider the relative benefits. A nuclear power plant may use materials that are more dangerous and require greater security than a wind farm, but it will also produce vastly more power. Overall, the enormous benefits derived from nuclear power—which, pound for pound, outweigh those of any other fuel or energy technology—make it worth the risk.

The same goes for coal. Not only is coal dangerous to mine, but its use poses dangers to the environment in the form of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Still, coal, which produces half the nation’s electricity, is so economical and reliable that its critics have not been able to offer realistic alternatives. Wind and solar energy presently are incapable of meeting even one-fiftieth of the generating capacity that we get from coal. The long lead time and capital-intensive process required to build new nuclear power plants mean that the nuclear industry won’t have the capacity to match coal anytime soon. Available domestic natural gas reserves have plateaued, imperiling that fuel’s present position, supplying a fifth of our electricity. The only alternative in the United States to using coal is using less electricity. That would result in rationing, decreased economic productivity, lower standards of living, and less freedom—which is not a realistic alternative at all.

 

ENERGY AND THE ENVIRONMENT: MYTHS AND FACTS

Download PDF (3MB)
Or request a hardcopy

Press Release

MEDIA INQUIRIES:

Clarice Smith
Deputy Director,
Communications
Manhattan Institute
(212) 599-7000

 

 


Copyright The Manhattan Institute 2007