We wrote about an editorial in The Hill by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) a couple of months ago. Now, Politifact, an invaluable service provided by the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times that weighs comments by politicians for their truthfulness, has decided to see whether Alexander is passing the truth test for this assertion made in the editorial:
"No member of the American public has ever been killed by commercial nuclear power — a record unmatched by other fuels."
The first part of his statement we know to be true, but the second part – well, we’re not sure. Of course, no field can suffer fewer than zero fatalities, but we figure other energy generators match nuclear’s safety record.
Politifact does come up with a couple of accidents at nuclear plants that killed workers:
In a 1986 incident, four workers were killed at the Surry power plant in Virginia from the rupture of a pipe that sprayed workers with scalding water and steam. But the accident happened in a non-nuclear portion of the plant.
We read Alexander to mean the public outside of plants, not workers, but nuclear energy plants have an enviable worker safety record, too. It’s a safety-obsessed field.
But there are other considerations in Alexander’s statement that reach the ambiguous. For example, if a runaway windmill buzzsawed through a gaggle of birdwatchers, would that count? Is wind a “fuel” in Alexander’s meaning? (We don’t think that example is conceivable, by the way.)
We’d need to look at the issue in more depth, but our intuition is that energy generation has not been a kill-crazy industry and that Alexander aims to make a strong – and true - point about nuclear energy.
Politifact agrees that Alexander’s statement about industries other than nuclear is hard to parse:
It's difficult to get a good comparison with other power-source fatalities because the numbers don't necessarily separate between common workplace hazards and those specifically related to the power source. But for comparison, 13 people have been killed in hydroelectric power generation since 2003, and fossil-fuel electric power generation has killed 23 since then, said Andrew Marsh, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
We’re not sure about those numbers – they may also be workers. So we cannot say – and Politifact doesn’t - that the number of fatalities for hydro and fossil-fuels are zero or above zero for the public outside those kinds of plants.
Despite these deaths [the Surry workers], nuclear power does stack up as one of the safest forms of energy.
Alexander is right that no has been killed "by commercial nuclear power." And those statistics and the most complete numbers we can find for other energy sources confirm his claim that it is a record unmatched by other fuels. So we find his claim True.
We do, too.
If Don Quixote had found himself deceased as a result of tilting at the windmill, would that have been the windmill’s fault? Inquiring minds want to know.