Nuclear power is safe. Why don’t people like it?

Sep 24, JDN 2457656

This post will have two parts, corresponding to each sentence. First, I hope to convince you that nuclear power is safe. Second, I’ll try to analyze some of the reasons why people don’t like it and what we might be able to do about that.

Depending on how familiar you are with the statistics on nuclear power, the idea that nuclear power is safe may strike you as either a completely ridiculous claim or an egregious understatement. If your primary familiarity with nuclear power safety is via the widely-publicized examples of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and more recently Fukushima, you may have the impression that nuclear power carries huge, catastrophic risks. (You may also be confusing nuclear power with nuclear weapons—nuclear weapons are indeed the greatest catastrophic risk on Earth today, but equating the two is like equating automobiles and machine guns because both of them are made of metal and contain lubricant, flammable materials, and springs.)

But in fact nuclear energy is astonishingly safe. Indeed, even those examples aren’t nearly as bad as people have been led to believe. Guess how many people died as a result of Three Mile Island, including estimated increased cancer deaths from radiation exposure?

Zero. There are zero confirmed deaths and the consensus estimate of excess deaths caused by the Three Mile Island incident by all causes combined is zero.

What about Fukushima? Didn’t 10,000 people die there? From the tsunami, yes. But the nuclear accident resulted in zero fatalities. If anything, those 10,000 people were killed by coal—by climate change. They certainly weren’t killed by nuclear.

Chernobyl, on the other hand, did actually kill a lot of people. Chernobyl caused 31 confirmed direct deaths, as well as an estimated 4,000 excess deaths by all causes. On the one hand, that’s more than 9/11; on the other hand, it’s about a month of US car accidents. Imagine if people had the same level of panic and outrage at automobiles after a month of accidents that they did at nuclear power after Chernobyl.

The vast majority of nuclear accidents cause zero fatalities; other than Chernobyl, none have ever caused more than 10. Deepwater Horizon killed 11 people, and yet for some reason Americans did not unite in opposition against ever using oil (or even offshore drilling!) ever again.

In fact, even that isn’t fair to nuclear power, because we’re not including the thousands of lives saved every year by using nuclear instead of coal and oil.

Keep in mind, the WHO estimates 10 to 100 million excess deaths due to climate change over the 21st century. That’s an average of 100,000 to 1 million deaths every year. Nuclear power currently produces about 11% of the world’s energy, so let’s do a back-of-the-envelope calculation for how many lives that’s saving. Assuming that additional climate change would be worse in direct proportion to the additional carbon emissions (which is conservative), and assuming that half that energy would be replaced by coal or oil (also conservative, using Germany’s example), we’re looking at about a 6% increase in deaths due to climate change if all those nuclear power plants were closed. That’s 6,000 to 60,000 lives that nuclear power plants save every year.

I also haven’t included deaths due to pollution—note that nuclear power plants don’t pollute air or water whatsoever, and only produce very small amounts of waste that can be quite safely stored. Air pollution in all its forms is responsible for one in eight deaths worldwide. Let me say that again: One in eight of all deaths in the world is caused by air pollution—so this is on the order of 7 million deaths per year, every year. We burn our way to a biannual Holocaust. Most of this pollution is actually caused by burning wood—fireplaces, wood stoves, and bonfires are terrible for the air—and many countries would actually see a substantial reduction in their toxic pollution if they switched to oil or even coal in favor of wood. But a large part of that pollution is caused by coal, and a nontrivial amount is caused by oil. Coal-burning factories and power plants are responsible for about 1 million deaths per year in China alone. Most of that pollution could be prevented if those power plants were nuclear instead.

Factor all that in, and nuclear power currently saves tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives per year, and expanding it to replace all fossil fuels could save millions more. Indeed, a more precise estimate of the benefits of nuclear power published a few years ago in Environmental Science and Technology is that nuclear power plants have saved some 1.8 million human lives since their invention, putting them on a par with penicillin and the polio vaccine.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you of the first proposition: Nuclear power plants are safe—and not just safe, but heroic, in fact one of the greatest life-saving technologies ever invented. So, why don’t people like them?

Unfortunately, I suspect that no amount of statistical data by itself will convince those who still feel a deep-seated revulsion to nuclear power. Even many environmentalists, people who could be nuclear energy’s greatest advocates, are often opposed to it. I read all the way through Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and never found even a single cogent argument against nuclear power; she simply takes it as obvious that nuclear power is “more of the same line of thinking that got us in this mess”. Perhaps because nuclear power could be enormously profitable for certain corporations (which is true; but then, it’s also true of solar and wind power)? Or because it also fits this narrative of “raping and despoiling the Earth” (sort of, I guess)? She never really does explain; I’m guessing she assumes that her audience will simply share her “gut feeling” intuition that nuclear power is dangerous and untrustworthy. One of the most important inconvenient truths for environmentalists is that nuclear power is not only safe, it is almost certainly our best hope for stopping climate change.

Perhaps all this is less baffling when we recognize that other heroic technologies are often also feared or despised for similarly bizarre reasons—vaccines, for instance.

First of all, human beings fear what we cannot understand, and while the human immune system is certainly immensely complicated, nuclear power is based on quantum mechanics, a realm of scientific knowledge so difficult and esoteric that it is frequently used as the paradigm example of something that is hard to understand. (As Feynman famously said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”) Nor does it help that popular treatments of quantum physics typically bear about as much resemblance to the actual content of the theory as the X-Men films do to evolutionary biology, and con artists like Deepak Chopra take advantage of this confusion to peddle their quackery.

Nuclear radiation is also particularly terrifying because it is invisible and silent; while a properly-functioning nuclear power plant emits less ionizing radiation than the Capitol Building and eating a banana poses substantially higher radiation risk than talking on a cell phone, nonetheless there is real danger posed by ionizing radiation, and that danger is particularly terrifying because it takes a form that human senses cannot detect. When you are burned by fire or cut by a knife, you know immediately; but gamma rays could be coursing through you right now and you’d feel no different. (Huge quantities of neutrinos are coursing through you, but fear not, for they’re completely harmless.) The symptoms of severe acute radiation poisoning also take a particularly horrific form: After the initial phase of nausea wears off, you can enter a “walking ghost phase”, where your eventual death is almost certain due to your compromised immune and digestive systems, but your current condition is almost normal. This makes the prospect of death by nuclear accident a particularly vivid and horrible image.

Vividness makes ideas more available to our memory; and thus, by the availability heuristic, we automatically infer that it must be more probable than it truly is. You can think of horrific nuclear accidents like Chernobyl, and all the carnage they caused; but all those millions of people choking to death in China don’t make for a compelling TV news segment (or at least, our TV news doesn’t seem to think so). Vividness doesn’t actually seem to make things more persuasive, but it does make them more memorable.

Yet even if we allow for the possibility that death by radiation poisoning is somewhat worse than death by coal pollution (if I had to choose between the two, okay, maybe I’d go with the coal), surely it’s not ten thousand times worse? Surely it’s not worth sacrificing entire cities full of people to coal in order to prevent a handful of deaths by nuclear energy?

Another reason that has been proposed is a sense that we can control risk from other sources, but a nuclear meltdown would be totally outside our control. Perhaps that is the perception, but if you think about it, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense. If there’s a nuclear meltdown, emergency services will report it, and you can evacuate the area. Yes, the radiation moves at the speed of light; but it also dissipates as the inverse square of distance, so if you just move further away you can get a lot safer quite quickly. (Think about the brightness of a lamp in your face versus across a football field. Radiation works the same way.) The damage is also cumulative, so the radiation risk from a meltdown is only going to be serious if you stay close to the reactor for a sustained period of time. Indeed, it’s much easier to avoid nuclear radiation than it is to avoid air pollution; you can’t just stand behind a concrete wall to shield against air pollution, and moving further away isn’t possible if you don’t know where it’s coming from. Control would explain why we fear cars less than airplanes (which is also statistically absurd), but it really can’t explain why nuclear power scares people more than coal and oil.

Another important factor may be an odd sort of bipartisan consensus: While the Left hates nuclear power because it makes corporations profitable or because it’s unnatural and despoils the Earth or something, the Right hates nuclear power because it requires substantial government involvement and might displace their beloved fossil fuels. (The Right’s deep, deep love of the fossil fuel industry now borders on the pathological. Even now that they are obviously economically inefficient and environmentally disastrous, right-wing parties around the world continue to defend enormous subsidies for oil and coal companies. Corruption and regulatory capture could partly explain this, but only partly. Campaign contributions can’t explain why someone would write a book praising how wonderful fossil fuels are and angrily denouncing anyone who would dare criticize them.) So while the two sides may hate each other in general and disagree on most other issues—including of course climate change itself—they can at least agree that nuclear power is bad and must be stopped.

Where do we go from here, then? I’m not entirely sure. As I said, statistical data by itself clearly won’t be enough. We need to find out what it is that makes people so uniquely terrified of nuclear energy, and we need to find a way to assuage those fears.

And we must do this now. For every day we don’t—every day we postpone the transition to a zero-carbon energy grid—is another thousand people dead.

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