Here Be Dragons

Deck: 

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 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.

Imposed Risk

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 60 years old. “It is irresponsible to talk about small probabilities and make people rely on them,” Taleb writes.

As a society, we must make every effort to understand the risks we’re imposing on people. If the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster leads to an honest examination of nuclear risks and our ability to manage them, then ultimately the industry might regain public confidence. But if it becomes a hyperbolic argument over unknowable consequences, then it will cause even greater fear and mistrust.

We must avoid that outcome if we hope to learn the lessons of Fukushima-Daiichi. Dragons can’t be allowed to roam freely in our midst.

 

Endnotes:

1. China Labour Bulletin Research Report No. 6 cites figures from the State Administration of Work Safety that report more than 39,000 deaths from 2000 through 2006. Subsequent reports indicate about 9,000 miners died in Chinese coal mines from 2007 through 2009.

2. DOT PHMSA Pipeline Safety Program.

3. The IAEA/UN Chernobyl Forum estimates about 4,000 deaths attributable to radiation from the Chernobyl disaster. By comparison, Greenpeace cites figures totaling 140,000.

4. EU ExternE project and subsequent study, Economic Analysis of Various Options of Electricity Generation – Taking into Account Health and Environmental Effects, Institute of Atomic Energy, Otwock-Swierk, Poland.

5. CBS News poll, March 22, 2011.