Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Re: Counting the Cost of Nuclear ... and Road Traffic Accidents

(This is meant to be a response to Dominic's blog post Counting the Cost of Nuclear ... and Road Traffic Accidents, but his blog didn't let me post a comment of this length.)


I hesitate to respond, since I agree with your basic thesis on the hypocrisy around driving, and that hypocrisy stems in part from people's willingness to condemn anything as long as it doesn't require them to change their own behavior. But as The Internet Is For Disagreeing™, I must be a devil's advocate here.

I disagree with the knee-jerk calls to ban nuclear power, but they do stem from fear. You quote compelling statistics that show why we shouldn’t fear nuclear power--or rather, that if we fear nuclear power, it would be consistent to fear cars much more. You do this because you’re a scientist, and the beauty of science is that, through its discipline, we use measurement to set aside our fears (and our hopes) when deciding what is true. This discipline doesn’t always work, but it’s the best way we have to overcome the frailties of the human mind.

In an ideal world, these statistics would (through the rigor of scientific thought) overcome fear in the public mind. But the problem in this case isn’t ignorance of the statistics, it’s the scale of the fear. Fear of nuclear power is deep and profound, and not just because people are hypocritical and wicked.

Most obviously, there's a strong cultural fear of nuclear power because it was first introduced in the form of doomsday weapons. The public knows that our arsenals of nuclear weapons could Totally End Civilization, and yet somehow nuclear power plants are supposed to be safe. The problem is that the “somehow” is unclear for most people. Though the scale and speed of the reactions are different, though the safeguards and control measures are different, though a nuclear reactor will (as I understand it) never fail in the form of a nuclear explosion, the association is still there in people’s minds.

Even once we accept that controlled nuclear fission is a much less scary beast, there remains the problem that the beast is still genuinely dangerous, and on a very large scale, and is only made safe by harnessing it very, very carefully. We can take comfort in the fact that Fukishima has much stronger safety measures than Chernobyl did, but the fact is, if there weren't brave and brilliant people fighting to restore cooling right now, it would (as I understand) continue to heat up, then melt down, then turn into more than just a regional crisis.

Luckily for us, there are brave and brilliant people stabilizing the situation. But the tendency of a nuclear reactor, left unattended, is to get worse rather than better, and catastrophically so. That kind of failure mode is something new in the world, and it speaks to people’s fears more deeply than the (statistically more significant) threat of auto accidents.

Inside each nuclear reactor is a Fury harnessed. To ask people to accept it is to ask them to believe in the safety measures you've imposed. Because most of us are unlikely to ever understand the safety measures in any great technical depth, trusting in them is an act of faith. Ideally, it should not require faith, but just analysis of statistics. But in this case fear trumps statistics for all but the most scientific minds. Thus, when the safety measures fail publicly, and technicians (the Fury Harnessers themselves) scramble to contain the danger, it's no surprise that many people lose faith.

As for car accidents, the fear there is less because it’s diffuse. When one person dies in a car accident, it’s a catastrophe for a family and heart wrenching for a community. This happens over and over again in our society, but it’s scattered. It’s rare that a single car accident affects an entire city, let alone an entire nation. But when an out-of-control reactor seems to threaten a nation and beyond, people’s fears are aligned in space and time and the response is naturally amplified. Cars are more dangerous in the aggregate but less likely to incite a response for this reason.

My point is not that anti-nuclear sentiments are correct, but that they are natural, and to me it’s clear why people would react this way. We may believe nuclear power is worth the risk, and (armed with favorable statistics) we may be comfortable with our hubris in harnessing the Fury for our own ends. But we shouldn’t be surprised that many people are terrified along the way, particularly when thing go wrong. And if that leads to some inconsistency of thought, we should blame at least some of it on the hubris, and not just on frailty of the human mind.

(If you'd like to comment, please do so on Dom's original blog post.)