Nuclear Power and Dread Risk

The eminent cognitive psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer wrote a classic article back in 2004 for the journal Psychological Science which, I believe, explains a bizarre fact about America energy policy.

In "Dread Risk, September 11, and Fatal Traffic Accidents," Gigerenzer defines "dread risk events" as ones that are very rare but have major negative consequences.  The terrorist attacks on 9/11 are a perfect illustration of dread risk.  Terrorist hijackings are quite infrequent, but when they happen, they can lead to a large number of deaths -- a dreadful result.  Because of this, dread risks are extraordinarily salient and vividly striking to people who witness them.  What American who lived through 9/11 has forgotten the horrific images of those planes flying into buildings and people being forced to leap to their deaths to avoid incineration?

But the very salience of the event deformed people's prudential judgments.  Millions of people for months afterward generally avoided flying, electing to drive instead.  They did not consider the fact that a person's chances of dying or being grievously injured are much higher when driving than they are when flying commercially.

By looking at the drop in air travel, the increase in vehicle miles driven, and the known accident statistics for both modes of transportation, Gigerenzer made a compelling case for the proposition that in the three months after the attacks, more Americans died from the increased travel by auto (compared to the number who would have died had they traveled by plane in the usual numbers) than died as plane passengers in the attacks themselves.

Alas, a dread risk scenario of massively greater harm is now occurring in the aftermath of the historically massive earthquake which struck Japan recently.  That quake severely damaged several nuclear power plants, especially the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant.  In the wake of the record quake -- 9.1 on the Richter scale, a quake that occurs worldwide about once every three hundred years -- and huge tsunami, the reactors were damaged to level 5 in the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES) individually, and are jointly now reckoned to be a level 7 accident -- the highest ranking, or on the level of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

The INES, like the Richter scale, is a logarithmic scale -- each point on the scale is a factor of ten times worse than the preceding point.

The quake, tsunami, and the problems they caused at the nuclear plants were covered in excruciating detail by the American news media.  Take just the Wall Street Journal, normally not a hysterical reporter of technological crises.  It published an enormous number of articles on the crisis in a special section of the paper called "Disaster in Japan," with very alarming headlines such as "Chernobyl Survivors See Parallels in Crisis," "Radiation Fears Prompt New Exodus," "Officials Struggle to Prevent Meltdown at Two Reactors," and "Radiation Spurs Fears Around Japanese Food."

Similar reports were trumpeted on Fox News, Sean Hannity's radio show, and on the Drudge Report.  And those are from the allegedly pro-free-market media!

But what has this disaster revealed about nuclear power?  It has shown just how relatively safe it is.  Not absolutely safe -- nothing is -- but how relatively safe.

Let's review a few facts regarding nuclear energy.  The biggest disaster in its remarkably safe history is the Chernobyl disaster, in which a shoddily built Soviet reactor of poor design -- the damn thing didn't even have a containment dome! -- and rotten maintenance experienced a core meltdown.  During the whole affair, two dozen workers died of radiation poisoning.

By comparison, the Fukushima plant disaster was not a problem of design.  The plant actually withstood the massive quake -- a far more massive quake than it was designed to withstand, and one bigger than Japan had had in perhaps a thousand years.  What caused the coolant circulation failure was actually the tsunami that hit after the quake.  So far, two workers have died from the partial core melts.  And as of now, the amount of radioactive material released by the Fukushima reactors is at most one-tenth of that released at Chernobyl.

Turning now to the U.S., where we have over 100 nuclear reactors at 65 power plants collectively supplying roughly 20% of America's electricity, there have been no deaths from nuclear power in the nearly sixty years of nuclear power production.  Also, there have been no deaths ever recorded in the nearly sixty years in which nuclear power has propelled our warships (including the entire existing submarine fleet).  Compare this to the 100,000 deaths in the coal industry over the last century.  Yes, coal mines are far safer now than in times past -- but even now, about thirty men a year die in coal mines, and about four thousand new cases of black lung disease are diagnosed every year.

But people are familiar with coal, so the large number of deaths and injuries it produces causes no public dread.  Nor does the fact that coal plants dump tons of pollutants into the air every year -- including, ironically, a huge amount of radioactive compounds -- lead to any public worry.  We are comfortable with the familiar, no matter how much death and disease it causes.

The same point holds even with the forms of energy the public usually views as safe, such as oil and natural gas.  Every year, about a hundred workers die in oil and gas drilling.  And a few people die each year in natural gas explosions at home and in accidents where gasoline catches fire.  In 1944, one gas explosion in Cleveland killed 130 people.  Indeed, as Pierre Gosselin has so trenchantly noted, more Americans die each year from candles (about 130) than die from nuclear power (precisely zero)!  And more Americans have died from wind power than nuclear power as well.

It is clear that the tragedy in Japan has led to an upswing of anti-nuclear power sentiment, both in the U.S. and abroad.  For example, the Fukushima disaster has given great ammunition to the already powerful anti-nuclear forces in Germany.  Now even elements of the country's ruling center-right coalition are pushing the government to close many or even all of the country's seventeen nuclear plants.  The country's left wing, long dominated by the Greens -- aka "watermelons," i.e., green on the outside and red on the inside -- have long pushed to terminate nuclear power.

In addition, Italy has now announced a freeze on all new construction, pending a review of safety test to be conducted on European nuclear power plants.  China has announced a similar freeze on the construction of new nuclear plants. And in the U.S., polls indicate a dramatic drop in support for nuclear power.

Not all countries are responding to the events in Japan with anti-nuclear hysteria.  Lithuania, for example, has announced that it is proceeding with the construction of a 3.4-megawatt reactor.  Romas Svedas, the deputy Minister for Energy, after expressing his condolences for the Japanese, said, "Now is the best time to build nuclear!  We are going ahead with our project -- no changes."

The new Lithuanian plant will supply over half the nation's electric needs, as well as supplying electricity to Latvia and Estonia.

Of course. Lithuania's unusual clarity is a product of its history.  Repeatedly attacked by Russia, including being viciously brutalized when it was incorporated into the Soviet Empire, Lithuania has an ingrained hunger for independence generally and energy independence in particular.  In case the Lithuanian collective national memory was growing dim, the Russians just two years ago gave the country's people a lesson in realpolitik by cutting off the supply of natural gas during a severe winter in a bid to extract higher prices from Europeans, as well as reassert control over its former colonies.

Most of the other Eastern European nations have also signaled a willingness to persevere with their plans for nuclear power expansion, for the same reason Lithuania is.

Would that we Americans were as clear-sighted!

Gary Jason is a contributing editor of LibertyUnbound and Philosophy instructor.
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