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Our Skewed Risk Perception of Nuclear Power

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFebruary 11, 2012 1:39 AM


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You may have heard, as Scientific American reports, that the "U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) voted to allow construction of two new nuclear reactors" in Georgia. It's a pretty big deal, since Jimmy Carter was President the last time a commercial reactor was approved. As the LA Times notes, the new Georgia plant

is supposed to have all of the technology and safeguards to avoid a meltdown like the one that occurred at Fukushima, which was hit by a tsunami after a massive earthquake and lost electrical power to keep its reactor cool. The Westinghouse system is supposed to be able to endure a complete blackout and safely shut down the reactor with passive cooling systems, said company spokesman Vaughn Gilbert.

Of course, for those who are opposed to nuclear power based on safety concerns, what happened at Fukushima remains frightful proof of the dangers. But as George Monbiot argued in a series of columns last year, the disaster could also serve as an argument for the technology's relative safety. Over at my latest Yale Forum post, Nullius in Verba makes a similar case. I often don't see eye to eye with Nullius, but in this comment he shows the skewed risk perception many have of nuclear power:

Fukushima was actually an excellent demonstration of just how safe nuclear energy actually is. Let's compare it to something concrete: is your house "safe"? When you sit in home, are you nervous about having tons of brick and concrete suspended a few feet above your head? You would probably say "yes, of course it's safe", but let's judge it by the same standard we judge nuclear power. You claim your house is "safe", but if you hit it with a magnitude 9 earthquake, and then shortly after smash a 30 foot high wall of water moving at a hundred miles an hour into it, will it still be standing? Or will the whole thing collapse on top of you? In Japan, something like 10,000 people sat in their "safe" houses died. And left a landscape strewn with rubble which is going to cost billions to clean up. And a tsunami leaves the land tainted with salt, and no crops will grow until it is gone. So is a nuclear power station that was still standing and killed less than a handful more dangerous than houses which collapsed and killed thousands? Or, if you want to look at it that way, more dangerous than building thousands of houses on an island prone to earthquakes and tsunamis? The thinking appears to be that it is, because within a few days of the disaster, none of the news reports mentioned the tens of thousands left homeless or burying their dead, it was all about the nuclear reactor. The tiniest trace of radioactivity anywhere was picked up and breathlessly reported around the world, although the fact that raw sewage was floating down the streets was not. Sewage is more dangerous, it kills more people, but they're more scared of the radioactivity. So that's why I say "relatively safe". It's safe, relative to all the other risky things that we consider safe. It's not absolutely safe "“ nothing is "“ but the risks are far lower than for many other dangers that we consider it acceptable to take. It would be interesting to know where the anti-nuclear denial of science comes from, political elites, or perhaps the coal mining industry? How should science communicators talk about nuclear energy to overcome this block? Or should we sit back and do nothing, and wait for energy prices to skyrocket before offering it again? It's an interesting comparison, isn't it?

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