Investor-owned utilities might seem fairly robust, but they’re not impervious to unpredictable black-swan events. Ensuring the industry’s survival might depend on our ability to reduce our...
Here Be Dragons
Life, death and nuclear fallout.
everyday dangers that people accept. We might observe that the March 11 earthquake and tsunami claimed many thousands of lives, destroying entire communities, with the Fukushima-Daiichi accident being a small component of that enormous catastrophe. And nevertheless the tide of public sentiment now turns against nuclear power, 5 and not against the demonstrably greater risk of living within range of a tsunami.
Of course such comparisons are meaningless in a public debate. That’s because the invisible specter of nuclear fallout is viscerally frightening in a way that dwarfs dangers that are actually more substantial, but more familiar.
That’s no excuse for complacency. We can learn lessons from Fukushima-Daiichi, and we must.
People face three types of deadly risks in their daily lives.
One type of risk is imposed by nature, such as the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, and also things like hurricanes and tornadoes. A second type of risk is borne voluntarily. Examples include skydiving, smoking cigarettes, etc. A third type of risk combines the first two. It’s the type of risk that’s chosen by society, and imposed upon individuals.
This category contains risks from the entire range of commercial and industrial activities—not the least of which include energy production and distribution. The law of averages dictates that sooner or later these risks have real consequences, either as a result of accidents or normal operation. Pollution causes disease. Gas pipelines leak and burn. Hydro dams break open and sweep people away. Coal-ash ponds burst and flood the landscape with toxic slurry. And once in a while, a nuclear facility releases radioactive material into the environment.
When such things happen, people want to know why—and rightly so. They want to know who’s to blame, and who will pay the price. They want to know what’s being done to prevent recurrences. And they want to know whether the risks are worth taking.
These questions now are being asked about nuclear power. Lawmakers and utilities in many countries—including the United States—are reviewing risk factors and safety designs. Tokyo Electric Power is only beginning to address the reasons for the Fukushima-Daiichi failure, but some eye-opening details have emerged. Most notably, the plant was designed to withstand an earthquake measuring 8.0 on the Richter scale, and to survive a 5.7-meter tsunami. The March 11 earthquake measured 9.0—an order of magnitude more powerful than 8.0—and the tsunami was estimated to reach 14 meters. Beyond the apparent inadequacy of contingency plans at the facility, the onsite spent-fuel storage pools turned out to be far more vulnerable and prone to radioactive release than the industry assumed they were.
So among all the lessons we can learn from Japan’s disaster, one stands out: Nature pays no attention to engineering assumptions.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the 2007 book The Black Swan , points out that the Japanese Nuclear Commission in 2003 set a goal to reduce public risk from nuclear power to no more than one death in 1 million years. The Fukushima-Daiichi incident suggests such risk estimates are meaningless, especially when applied to an industry that’s only