A Worldwide Environmental Disaster

Japan 2011 is a disaster for the worldwide environment: by souring nuclear energy’s prospects.

Safety is a valid concern. But safety can never mean zero risk. Nothing in life has zero risk. We must always balance costs against benefits, risks against rewards. We know that planes sometimes crash, yet we still fly. Cars crash too – annually, over 30,000 Americans are killed on highways – yet we still drive. We accept these trade-offs because of the utility of flying and driving. In comparison to the highway carnage, nuclear power risks – even considering the occasional Japan-like disaster – are insignificant.

When I made this point in a radio call-in, someone responded that nuclear is different because 10,000 could die all at once, whereas auto deaths happen one at a time. As if that somehow makes them less of a concern. Meantime, for all the perfervid speculation about what a nuclear disaster might entail, during the past 25 years no nuclear accident had actually killed anyone.

In fact, hundreds of nuclear reactors have been operating around the world for decades without incident. You are more in danger from falling out of bed than from a nuclear accident. (Yes: around 450 Americans die annually falling out of bed.)

Japan’s nuclear mess didn’t just happen out of the blue, or because some Homer Simpson pushed the wrong button on a control panel. This was one of the biggest earthquake/tsunamis ever recorded. That such an extreme event wrecked nuclear plants surely does not prove the technology is somehow inherently unsafe. And in the context of the horrific overall devastation in Japan, the nuclear aspect is relatively minor. The vast bulk of the injury and death will have come from the tsunami, not the nukes.

But when it comes to safety concerns, nuclear is different – in the public mind. Partly because decades ago a certain breed of activists latched onto this, in an anti-industrial luddite crusade. It had a deep resonance for them, and for the wider public, because the modern psyche incorporates a primal fear of anything “nuclear,” a heritage of Hiroshima and the cold war. Simply put, we have an irrational fear of “nuclear” that makes us lose all sense of proportion about its dangers.

(Since some commenter is bound to mention nuclear waste, it’s frankly a bogus issue. Currently we store huge amounts on-site with no problems. The national repository at Yucca Mountain has essentially been shelved only because of NIMBYism and Nevada’s 3 electoral votes. And the ultimate solution is going to be recycling: poof, no more waste.)

Nuclear is the cleanest and least environmentally problematic option for large-scale power generation. Whatever its downsides may be, they are greater for the alternatives. Air pollution from fossil fuel generation actually kills thousands every year. Why don’t activists get upset about that? (We’re oblivious to it because no individual case of lung disease can be definitively tied to power plants. Yet for the population as a whole, we can make that link.) Global Warming too is a genuine problem, and using nuclear in place of fossil fuels (like coal) unquestionably helps (nuclear puts no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere). Solar, wind, etc, are all very nice, but currently cannot meet more than a small fraction of our power needs.

The negative impact on nuclear energy development may well prove to be the most devastating long term effect of Japan’s tsunami.

2 Responses to “A Worldwide Environmental Disaster”

  1. Steve G. Says:

    I enjoyed this post. I’d just written on a essentially the same topic just before reading this post, and I immediately had to include an addendum (http://sngthoughts.blogspot.com/2011/03/energy-frankenstein.html). I am curious, given you legal training & experience, on the tort law issue. Is this a reliable guide?

    FSR RESPONSE: Thanks. My legal career was far removed from tort law. But it’s the essence of tort law that injury is compensated when there is fault, e.g., negligence. Pure accidents or “acts of God” do not qualify. “Strict liability” however would apply where an activity is so inherently dangerous that injury is reasonably foreseeable. I do not believe this would or should apply to nuclear power plants, assuming they are built and operated in compliance with the very thorough regulations in force. Thus, in the case of a Japan-like disaster, which was basically beyond anyone’s control, the utility should not be liable for injury unless it could be shown that it was culpable in some way (for example, negligence in dealing with the problem).
    A utility in such a situation might still feel a moral responsibility to compensate injured persons.
    In any case, given the rarity of such episodes, in the context of hundreds of plants operating safely for decades, and the huge revenues of the utilities operating them, the potential liability associated with such an episode should not be a material factor in the overall economics of nuclear energy. I would note that even BP was able to absorb the massive cost of the Gulf spill without wrecking its financial viability. (But, I daresay, the irrational over-exaggeration of the risks of nuclear energy do infect even Wall Street evaluations.)

  2. Lee Says:

    That nuclear power’s threats result predominantly from accidents rather than routine use may actually be a strength! One could imagine that a few more failsafes could further improve the safety record of nuclear power, whereas it is more difficult to imagine how we would significantly reduce the deaths from fossil fuel pollution.

    Chernobyl (24.9 years ago) did kill 20-30 people directly — and many more in the statistical sense that fossil fuel pollution kills people. (And, unfortunately, it is the gift that keeps on giving.) Even if nuclear power has a better safety record than its alternatives, I’d hesitate to call it zero deaths.

    FSR COMMENT: By saying “the last 25 years” I meant to exclude Chernobyl.

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