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.

What can we do to make the world a better place?

JDN 2457475

There are an awful lot of big problems in the world: war, poverty, oppression, disease, terrorism, crime… I could go on for awhile, but I think you get the idea. Solving or even mitigating these huge global problems could improve or even save the lives of millions of people.

But precisely because these problems are so big, they can also make us feel powerless. What can one person, or even a hundred people, do against problems on this scale?

The answer is quite simple: Do your share.

No one person can solve any of these problems—not even someone like Bill Gates, though he for one at least can have a significant impact on poverty and disease because he is so spectacularly mind-bogglingly rich; the Gates Foundation has a huge impact because it has as much wealth as the annual budget of the NIH.

But all of us together can have an enormous impact. This post today is about helping you see just how cheap and easy it would be to end world hunger and cure poverty-related diseases, if we simply got enough people to contribute.

The Against Malaria Foundation releases annual reports for all their regular donors. I recently got a report that my donations personally account for 1/100,000 of their total assets. That’s terrible. The global population is 7 billion people; in the First World alone it’s over 1 billion. I am the 0.01%, at least when it comes to donations to the Against Malaria Foundation.

I’ve given them only $850. Their total assets are only $80 million. They shouldn’t have $80 million—they should have $80 billion. So, please, if you do nothing else as a result of this post, go make a donation to the Against Malaria Foundation. I am entirely serious; if you think you might forget or change your mind, do it right now. Even a dollar would be worth it. If everyone in the First World gave $1, they would get 12 times as much as they currently have.

GiveWell is an excellent source for other places you should donate; they rate charities around the world for their cost-effectiveness in the only way worth doing: Lives saved per dollar donated. They don’t just naively look at what percentage goes to administrative costs; they look at how everything is being spent and how many children have their diseases cured.

Until the end of April, UNICEF is offering an astonishing five times matching funds—meaning that if you donate $10, a full $50 goes to UNICEF projects. I have really mixed feelings about donors that offer matching funds (So what you’re saying is, you won’t give if we don’t?), but when they are being offered, use them.

All those charities are focused on immediate poverty reduction; if you’re looking for somewhere to give that fights Existential Risk, I highly recommend the Union of Concerned Scientists—one of the few Existential Risk organizations that uses evidence-based projections and recognizes that nuclear weapons and climate change are the threats we need to worry about.

And let’s not be too anthropocentrist; there are a lot of other sentient beings on this planet, and Animal Charity Evaluator can help you find which charities will best improve the lives of other animals.

I’ve just listed a whole bunch of ways you can give money—and that probably is the best thing for you to give; your time is probably most efficiently used working in your own profession whatever that may be—but there are other ways you can contribute as well.

One simple but important change you can make, if you haven’t already, is to become vegetarian. Even aside from the horrific treatment of animals in industrial farming, you don’t have to believe that animals deserve rights to understand that meat is murder. Meat production is a larger contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions than transportation, so everyone becoming vegetarian would have a larger impact against climate change than taking literally every car and truck in the world off the road. Since the world population is less than 10 billion, meat is 18% of greenhouse emissions and the IPCC projects that climate change will kill between 10 and 100 million people over the next century, every 500 to 5000 new vegetarians saves a life.

You can move your money from a bank to a credit union, as even the worst credit unions are generally better than the best for-profit banks, and the worst for-profit banks are very, very bad. The actual transition can be fairly inconvenient, but a good credit union will provide you with all the same services, and most credit unions link their networks and have online banking, so for example I can still deposit and withdraw from my University of Michigan Credit Union account while in California.

Another thing you can do is reduce your consumption of sweatshop products in favor of products manufactured under fair labor standards. This is harder than it sounds; it can be very difficult to tell what a company’s true labor conditions are like, as the worst companies work very hard to hide them (now, if they worked half as hard to improve them… it reminds me of how many students seem willing to do twice as much work to cheat as they would to simply learn the material in the first place).

You should not simply stop buying products that say “Made in China”; in fact, this could be counterproductive. We want products to be made in China; we need products to be made in China. What we have to do is improve labor standards in China, so that products made in China are like products made in Japan or Korea—skilled workers with high-paying jobs in high-tech factories. Presumably it doesn’t bother you when something says “Made in Switzerland” or “Made in the UK”, because you know their labor standards are at least as high as our own; that’s where I’d like to get with “Made in China”.

The simplest way to do this is of course to buy Fair Trade products, particularly coffee and chocolate. But most products are not available Fair Trade (there are no Fair Trade computers, and only loose analogues for clothing and shoes).

Moreover, we must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good; companies that have done terrible things in the past may still be the best companies to support, because there are no alternatives that are any better. In order to incentivize improvement, we must buy from the least of all evils for awhile until the new competitive pressure makes non-evil corporations viable. With this in mind, the Fair Labor Association may not be wrong to endorse companies like Adidas and Apple, even though they surely have substantial room to improve. Similarly, few companies on the Ethisphere list are spotless, but they probably are genuinely better than their competitors. (Well, those that have competitors; Hasbro is on there. Name a well-known board game, and odds are it’s made by a Hasbro subsidiary: they own Parker Brothers, Milton Bradley, and Wizards of the Coast. Wikipedia has their own category, Hasbro subsidiaries. Maybe they’ve been trying to tell us something with all those versions of Monopoly?)

I’m not very happy with the current state of labor standards reporting (much less labor standards enforcement), so I don’t want to recommend any of these sources too highly. But if you are considering buying from one of three companies and only one of them is endorsed by the Fair Labor Association, it couldn’t hurt to buy from that one instead of the others.

Buying from ethical companies will generally be more expensive—but rarely prohibitively so, and this is part of how we use price signals to incentivize better behavior. For about a year, BP gasoline was clearly cheaper than other gasoline, because nobody wanted to buy from BP and they were forced to sell at a discount after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Their profits tanked as a result. That’s the kind of outcome we want—preferably for a longer period of time.

I suppose you could also save money by buying cheaper products and then donate the difference, and in the short run this would actually be most cost-effective for global utility; but (1) nobody really does that; people who buy Fair Trade also tend to donate more, maybe just because they are more generous in general, and (2) in the long run what we actually want is more ethical businesses, not a system where businesses exploit everyone and then we rely upon private charity to compensate us for our exploitation. For similar reasons, philanthropy is a stopgap—and a much-needed one—but not a solution.

Of course, you can vote. And don’t just vote in the big name elections like President of the United States. Your personal impact may actually be larger from voting in legislatures and even local elections and ballot proposals. Certainly your probability of being a deciding vote is far larger, though this is compensated by the smaller effect of the resulting policies. Most US states have a website where you can look up any upcoming ballots you’ll be eligible to vote on, so you can plan out your decisions well in advance.

You may even want to consider running for office at the local level, though I realize this is a very large commitment. But most local officials run uncontested, which means there is no real democracy at work there at all.

Finally, you can contribute in some small way to making the world a better place simply by spreading the word, as I hope I’m doing right now.