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Here Be Dragons

Life, death and nuclear fallout.

Fortnightly Magazine - April 2011

As this issue of Fortnightly was going to press, the bodies of 43 coal miners were being recovered from a mine in Pakistan, after a methane gas fire. It was the latest in an ongoing series of coal mining accidents, including last year’s Upper Big Branch mine explosion, which killed 29 miners in West Virginia. Worldwide, thousands of coal miners die in accidents each year. In China alone, accidents killed approximately 50,000 miners between 2000 and 2009. 1

As this issue of Fortnightly was being edited, a gas leak in Minneapolis sent a fireball into the sky, damaging structures and vehicles—but causing no injuries. A month earlier, five residents of Allentown, Pa., were killed when gas leaked and caused an explosion. The incident echoed last year’s San Bruno fire in California, where an exploding gas pipeline killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes.

The U.S. Department of Transportation reports that 578 pipeline incidents occurred during 2010 in the United States, resulting in 25 fatalities and 111 injuries. 2

And yet … we don’t stop delivering natural gas. We don’t stop mining coal. As a society, we’ve come to accept such risks as the price we pay to maintain our way of life.

You know where I’m going with this.

You also know that such comparisons are largely irrelevant in the public debate over nuclear power’s safety. That’s because when we’re talking about nuclear risks, we leave the world of reason and enter the realm of irrational fears and unknowable risks.

Unknowable Risk

Since nuclear power plants began generating electricity, nuclear accidents have caused perhaps several thousand deaths. The largest share of casualties resulted from the Chernobyl meltdown, but the exact scope of health impacts is impossible to quantify. Chernobyl’s casualty count ranges from about 4,000 to 140,000, 3 with most of the estimates heavily tainted by self-interests— i.e., eligibility claims against the Chernobyl victims’ compensation fund.

Closer to home, the Three Mile Island accident caused zero human fatalities, but arguably the radiation that was released might have caused cancers. Again, exact numbers are unknowable.

At this writing the Fukushima-Daiichi plant in Japan remains in crisis. It’s too early to estimate the number of casualties. But no matter how it turns out, the total impact will be impossible to quantify with any empirical certainty.

And there’s the rub.

Because we can’t define the consequences of nuclear accidents—and because radioactivity is invisible and undetectable without a Geiger counter—nuclear power’s risks are like shadowy monsters of unknown proportions. They’re dragons lurking outside the boundaries on our map.

In the big picture, we might justifiably argue that those risks are in fact relatively small. On a per-terawatt-hour (TWh) basis, nuclear power’s cumulative effects on human health are tiny compared to almost any other source of electricity. 4 And that’s not even considering the potential effects of climate change.

Further, we might reason that even the consequences of a Chernobyl-type disaster pale in comparison to the

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