How Much Is Your Life Worth?

, physicist & co-director, Global Security | May 27, 2015, 9:19 am EDT
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I recently bought a new bicycle to replace the one I bought in college, which I was still riding despite its deteriorating condition. I also decided to buy a new bike lock. Since the value of my new bike was considerably higher than that of my old one, it was clearly worthwhile for me to spend the money to upgrade my security system.

This sort of cost-benefit analysis is one way we all make decisions. For example, the more money a bank is designed to store safely—and therefore the greater the potential loss if it fails to do so—the more it’s worth for the bank to invest in security systems to prevent such a loss.

Nuclear power safety

The same principle that holds for bikes and banks is used by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which oversees the U.S. nuclear power industry. If the NRC wants to determine if it makes sense to require nuclear plants to add new safety and security systems, an important part of that determination is looking at the cost of adding those systems and comparing that to the cost of an accident that would be prevented by those systems.

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(Source: naturalflow)

So the question is: How does the NRC calculate the cost of a nuclear accident?

It calculates the effects of a nuclear accident and assigns a monetary value to the lives the accident could claim. This is a standard procedure. The Department of Transportation does the same thing—assigning monetary values to people injured or killed in traffic accidents—to determine what safety features it should require auto manufacturers to add to cars and trucks to prevent those accidents.

But for this to calculation to make sense, it’s important to get the costs of an accident right. In particular, if the calculated costs are too low, then on paper it won’t look like it makes sense to require nuclear plants to install safety systems that in reality do make sense.

Low-balling the value of a human life

And this is where the NRC fails in a dramatic way. In its calculations of the costs of a nuclear accident, the NRC assigns a value of $3 million to the loss of a human life. By comparison, the Department of Transportation uses a value of $9.1 million, which is in line with the value used by other federal agencies.

By low-balling the costs of accidents, the NRC is failing to require nuclear safety features that are worthwhile—and that the NRC’s calculation would show are worthwhile if it used a more standard value.

The NRC staff has recommended that the NRC increase the value it assigns to a human life from $3 million to $9 million, and tie that number to inflation, as other agencies do.

The NRC commissioners are now deciding whether to accept that recommendation, and are expected to come out with a public proposal soon. The nuclear industry is expected to oppose this change since adding safety features will cost money.

Stay tuned. In the meantime, this issue is described in more detail on the Huffington Post.

Posted in: Nuclear Power Tags: , , ,

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  • Hi folks–we’re happy to see a lively exchange of comments. However, please keep things civil and on-topic. Thanks!

    • Brian Donovan

      Sure but keep in mind: Psychopaths are great at remaining unemotional. Normal people less so. Yet we judge arguments exactly the opposite way. That’s how we end up ruled by the psychopaths.

      think about it. I didn’t swear, I didn’t attack anyone.

  • phillama

    If the union of concerned scientists hadnt stopped nulear power after three mile island, we wouldnt be destroying the earth with carbon now, most all of our power would be nuclear and carbon free, instead we went with coal and now look where we are, rising seas melting ice caps, you scientists are part of the problem not the solution

    • dwrightucsusa

      UCS has worked for decades to make nuclear power safer, not to shut it down.

      • phillama

        they sure werent helping back in the seventies when they were railing against nuclear power and project after project were being scrapped, hindsight is twenty twenty but these are the facts

    • Brian Donovan

      If we would stop wasting our time on nuclear and fossils we can replace them with solar, wind, efficiency and waste to fuels.

      We should have spent out gov research money on renewables back then instead of the massive gov breaks and research for nuclear.

      But if you don’t value human life, nuclear is great, it’s the most expensive, it slow to install, can can only be built out fast enough for about 5% of our electricity anyway, and only has proven reserves for 3 years of the world’s energy demands.

      Meanwhile the waste need to be stored for a million years and there is no system so do that.

      • phillama

        Obviously you dont know what your are talking about, if we are going renewables we need to use hemp, wind is a big waste of time and money and solar is only good in the southwest.Nuclear provides a lot of safe power as does nat gas, hemp can be used to supplement as the plant has the largest carbon uptake of any crop, and can be used for fuels with no carbon increase, its really the overlooked solution to global warming. Wind is a big waste of money, drive through north texas and you will see literally thousands of these windmills njot turning and they produce the power of the smallest coal plant. Unless they can improve the efficiency of solar, that is not a viable option either, unless you want to cover several states with solar panels and eliminate wildlife in those areas. At this point nuclear and hemp and nat gas are the way to go. Wind is a raptor killer and a lser technology

      • Brian Donovan

        We are going renewables. We need to use efficiency, wind, solar and wastes to fuels. Cheaper before gov breaks, clean, safe, and many times our energy needs forever.

        Germany get’s 80% of it’s peak electricity from solar. The difference between the best solar and worst solar, with high human habitation, is only 2 to one. The panels are only 25% of the cost.

        Nuclear provides 5% of the world’s energy and is incredibly deadly and dangerous, killing millions with cancers if you assume LNT.

        Rooftop, parking lot and roadside solar use zero land. Solar is 100 times as efficiency as plants.

        Nuclear and fossil each kill more birds per MWH than wind. Offshore wind further reduces that and it within 100 miles of some 80% of energy demand.

        Fracked gas is a water disaster, and is contaminating our ground water. It’s also already past peak, and more expensive.

        Only gov breaks keep fossil and nuclear in the market anymore.

        Your information is woefully out of date.

      • phillama

        wrong again, do a little test and price solar panels to put on your roof to replace your electric bill in most states, its close to 75000 dollars and this is probably not going to 100 percent cover the electric bill, now lets look at the cost of those windmills, they dont start seeing an energy return for years and years, I agree offshore is the way to go, but is very costly and uses a lot of energy resources just to place, right now our best bets are hemp, nat gas and nuclear the things you talk about are feelgood technologies tha twill keep the average american cold in the summer and hot in the winter and that is unacceptable, keep frackin add nuclear capacity and bring hemp on board. Hemp plants uptake four times the amount of carbon of any plant and they can be used to make auto fuels with a net zero carbon footprint

      • Brian Donovan

        We are done, you can’t read, and you provide no links. I didn’t say residential in the USA, which has the world’s most expensive residential solar market. The rest of the world install solar for 2$ per Wp.

        You are simply wrong, and have no interest in learning anything.


      • phillama

        well your wrong I got a quote from a local contractor, and it was 50000 to replace 70 percent of my electric bill there brian, so I am way ahead of you, as for hemp you need to read up on this miracle plant, its so much better than anything out there, we can power cars and redduce carbon in the atmosphere through sequestration, further it can be used in clothing and building products, now granted we probably wont use it for electric powere production we need nat gas and nuclear for that. Your plan would require solar panels everywhere, and they are not cost effective, go ask riverside california, nor is wind, go look up the wind farms of north texas. I have given you specific examples, your numbers are total bs pie in the sky dreamer stuff. If what you say is true, these technologies would already be implemented, but they are not because they are not cost effective or efficient,

      • phillama

        I looked at your stats and they are highly misleading, germany gets no more that 6.9 percent of its pwer from solar, it gets 46 percent from coal, and seventeen percent from nuclear, and only ten percent from nat gas, they dont have ready sources like the us, they do get 20 percent from wind and biomass, but still most of the power is coming from coal.

      • Brian Donovan

        80% of peak electricity. funny how idiots can’t read.

      • Brian Donovan

        Good grief folks , read the link.

        Do you understand the difference between anecdotal examples and a study?

        US utility solar is cheaper than fossil or nuclear before gov breaks.

        Around the world, residential solar is as cheaper as US utility solar, about 2$.

        Figure it out.