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 really scares me

JDN 2457327

Today is Halloween, so in the spirit of the holiday I thought I’d talk about things that are scary. Not things like zombies and witches and vampires; those things aren’t real (though people do still believe in them in many parts of the world). And maybe that’s part of the point; maybe Halloween is meant to “scare” us like a roller coaster, where we feel some of the epinephrine rush of fear but deep down we know we are safe.

But today I’m going to talk about things that are actually scary, things that are not safe deep down. I could talk about the Republican debate earlier this week, but maybe I shouldn’t get too scary.

In fiction there is whatever sort of ending the author wants to make, usually a happy one. Even tragic endings are written to be meaningful and satisfying. But in real life any sort of ending is possible. I could be driving down the street tomorrow and a semi truck could blindside me and kill me on impact. There’s no satisfying tragedy there, no comeuppance for my hubris or tragic flaw in my character leading to my doom—but this sort of thing kills over 30,000 Americans each year.

But are car accidents really scary? The way they kill just about anyone at random is scary. But there is a clear limit to how much damage they can do. No society has ever been wiped off the face of the Earth because of traffic accidents. There is no way for traffic accidents to risk the survival of the human race itself.

This brings me to the first thing that is really scary: Climate change. Human societies have been wiped off the face of the Earth due to local ecological collapses. The classic example is Easter Island, which did have an ecological collapse, but also suffered greatly from European invaders. Recent evidence suggests that the Vikings fell apart because glaciation broke their trade networks. Jared Diamond argues that a large number of ancient societies have fallen due to ecological collapse.

Yet for the first time we are now facing rapid global climate change, and it is our own doing. (As the vast majority of climate scientists agree.) We are already seeing its effects in flooding, wildfires, droughts, and hurricanes. Positive feedbacks are created, such as heat waves leading to more air conditioning, which draws more electricity that releases more carbon. Even as management of fishing improves, fisheries are still being depleted—because their waters are becoming too warm for the native fish.

Just yesterday the United Nations released a report showing that current promises of reduced carbon emissions will not be sufficient—even if they are followed through, which such promises often aren’t. The goal was to keep warming under 2 C; but it looks like we are looking at more like 2.7 C. That 0.7-degree difference may not seem like much, but in fact it means thousands or even millions of additional deaths. Most of the economic damage will be done to countries near the equator—which is also where the most impoverished people tend to live. The Global Humanitarian Forum estimates that global warming is already killing 300,000 people each year and causing over $100 billion in economic damage.

Meanwhile, there is a campaign of disinformation about climate change, funneled through secretive “dark money” processes (Why are these even allowed!?), including Exxon corporation, which has known for 30 years that they were contributing to climate change but actively suppressed that knowledge in order to avoid regulation. Koch Industries has also funded a great deal of climate change denialism. West Virginia recently tried to alter their science textbooks to remove references to climate change because they considered the scientific facts to be “too political”. Supposedly serious “think tanks” with conservative ideologies twist data in order to support their claims. Rather than be caught lying or denying science, most of the Republican presidential candidates are avoiding talking about the subject altogether.
There is good news, however: More Americans than ever recognize that climate change is real. 7% changed their minds in just the last few months. Even a lot of Republican politicians are finally coming around.

What else is scary? Nuclear war, a Black Swan. This is the most probable way humanity could destroy ourselves; the probability of nuclear war in the next 50 years has been estimated as high as 10%. Every day that goes by with nuclear weapons at the ready is like pulling the trigger in a game of Russian Roulette. We don’t really know how to estimate the probability with any precision; but even 0.1% per year would be a 10% chance over the next century.

There’s good news on this front as well: Slowly but surely, the world is disarming its nuclear weapons. From a peak of 60,000 nuclear weapons in 1986, we are now down to about 10,000. But we shouldn’t get too comfortable, as the estimated number necessary to trigger a global nuclear winter with catastrophic consequences is only about 100. India or Pakistan alone probably has enough to do that. The US or Russia has enough to do it 40 times over. We will need to continue our current disarmament trend for another 30 years before no single nation has enough weapons to trigger a nuclear winter.

Then there’s one more class of scary Black Swans: Mass extinction events. In particular, I’m talking about the Yellowstone Supervolcano, which could erupt at any moment, and the possibility of a large asteroid impact which could destroy cities or even wipe out all life on the surface of the Earth. We are 99.989% sure that TV135 will not do this; but in that 0.02% chance, it would hit with the force of 2500 megatons—50 times larger than any nuclear weapon ever built. Smaller (“smaller”) sub-megaton impacts are actually remarkably common; we average about two per year. If one ever hit a major city, it would be comparable to the Hiroshima nuclear bombing. The Yellowstone supervolcano would not be as catastrophic as a planet-scouring impact, but it would be comparable to a nuclear war and nuclear winter.

With asteroids, there are actually clear things we could do to improve our chances. Above all, we could invest in space exploration and astronomy. With better telescopes and more tracking stations we could see them coming; with better long-range rockets we might be able to deflect them before they get here. A number of different deflection proposals are being studied right now. This is actually the best reason I can think of to keep at least some nuclear weapons on standby; a large nuclear blast positioned at the right place could be effective at destroying an asteroid or deflecting it enough to miss us.

With Yellowstone, there really isn’t much we can do; all we can do at this point is continue to research the supervolcano and try to find ways to reduce the probability of its eruption. It is currently estimated at a just over 1 in 1 million chance of erupting any given year, but that’s a very rough estimate. Fracking near Yellowstone is currently banned, and I think it should stay that way until we have a very clear idea of what would happen. (It’s actually possible it could reduce the probability of eruption, in which case we should start fracking like crazy.)

Forget the zombie apocalypse. I’m scared of the supervolcano apocalypse.