In the next couple of days, I will be getting on a plane to go to Las Vegas. I’ll be visiting the Atomic Testing Museum and touring the Nevada Test Site, and I’ll be flying home. None of that worries me particularly. I’m well aware that I’m much more likely to get hit by a car walking to and from work each day. I should be–it’s happened before and I have close calls a minimum of once a week.
That said, I’m still already tired of people telling me how safe–safe, I tell you!–the nuclear power industry is. Some of that is people reacting to any complaint about the industry or the passing along of the scanty news coming out of Japan as though someone were saying the sky is falling, and putting out fatal doses of radiation in the meantime.
Some of it, however, is the reliance of a particular type of information telling me that nuclear energy is as safe as it gets. For example, I’ve been referred to this set of numbers frequently:
Deaths per TWh for all energy sources
Coal – world average: 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China: 278
Coal – USA: 15
Oil: 36 (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas: 4 (21% of world energy)
Solar (rooftop): 0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind: 0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro: 0.10 (Europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro – world including Banqiao: 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear: 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)
There are quite a few things that bother me about these numbers. The coal and biofuel safety numbers don’t come with a disclaimer that the greatest number of additional deaths from these fuels are due to indoor use for cooking, not from industrial energy production. Wind and solar energy numbers don’t reflect that these are developing industries, without decades of safety standards behind them. (Including development numbers for nuclear would drastically change the picture there, given that it was a technology born out of war.) None of these numbers include the costs of destruction of ecosystems, displacement, and unrest caused by the exploitation of resources required.
All those are difficult to quantify, however, and there are no guarantees that they would drastically change the relative risks (except for removing figures for indoor cooking). It is entirely possible that the nuclear power industry has the best track record for the last fifty years or so. I certainly can’t tell you it doesn’t. That still doesn’t give me warm fuzzies over nuclear power, and it kind of creeps me out that it reassures others.
Why? Largely because I live in Minneapolis. I’ve been through something like this before.
Until the 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, all the statistical data we had said highway bridges were very safe. Collapse was unthinkable based on the numbers. The problem with those statistics is that they were looking at a bunch of bridges that were built around the same time. The data also couldn’t account for the pattern of neglect that U.S. infrastructure had undergone for a couple of decades (a form of political corruption). Once we looked at actual bridges instead of historical data, we discovered that many bridges were downright dangerous, on or near the point of serious failure. Without repair and replacement, bridge safety statistics were about to become obsolete in a big way.
We’re at a very similar point with what we know about nuclear power production. We have an aging infrastructure, with plants nearing (or past) life expectancy. In order to determine what effect that’s likely to have on safety, we need honest evaluation of the current situation, not just the assumption that things will continue as they always have. We are currently reliant on the industry for that evaluation. The question of how much we trust the industry is highly relevant.
It will take time and analysis to be sure, but many of the details that have come out of Fukushima suggest that TEPCO wasn’t keeping up with the times in maintaining safety systems. It wasn’t applying lessons from prior earthquakes. Early statements from TEPCO suggest it wasn’t accurately assessing the risk of the situation. Neither were many others who were speaking for the industry.
That, not historical figures, is what future risk looks like, unless we rebuild the aging infrastructure. Then it might be reasonable to rely on history again. Now, there’s a very large question mark that can’t be filled in by saying, “Oh, it’s always been this way.”
Numbers are nice and reassuring, but you need to know what’s behind them too. In this case, you need to understand that at least some of your comfort relies on the energy industry stepping up and behaving.
Not only that, but they must behave in a non-competitive situation. The energy situation is very different than the airline situation, to use another example where people are constantly told their fears are irrational. Our energy demand is going up and up, and we can’t just say, “No, thank you. I trust this company more, so I’ll get my energy from them.” We don’t have the luxury of looking at nuclear power plants in which we have invested billions of dollars and changing our minds about them, and we’d be unlikely to even if we had that luxury.
We have very few options to make the industry behave where we have allowed it to flourish. That means we must plan for a certain amount of corruption at the executive level. That means that Fukushima, rather than being considered an aberration, must be considered one of the normal failures of the industry, and more so as the demand for energy increases. No matter what the historical numbers say.
If you, personally. want to rely on the historical numbers, or if you need to use them to manage your own anxieties in a productive way, I get that. However, they’re nothing like the whole picture in Fukushima or in any future decision-making about nuclear power. Please refrain from suggesting to the rest of us that the numbers are the only things with which we need to concern ourselves.