Nuclear power as the "shark attacks" of energy

By Razib Khan | March 24, 2011 11:03 am

Image Credit: Stefan Kuhn

I was at a coffee shop recently and a SWPL couple (woman had dreads to boot!) a number of tables away were reading a newspaper, and the husband expressed worry about the Fukushima disaster. The wife responded that “now other people will understand how dangerous nuclear power is,” with a sage nod. They then launched into twenty minutes of loud righteous gibberish about chemicals (I had a hard time making sense of it, despite the fact that I learned a lot about chemicals in the past due to my biochemistry background). Because they’d irritated me I was curious and I tailed them as they left. Naturally they had driven to get coffee in a S.U.V. of some sort (albeit, a modestly sized one which looked like it was more outfitted for the outdoors’ activities common in the Pacific Northwest; they’d probably done their cost vs. benefit about those chemicals!).

In terms of radiation fears, I suspect that if more people just automatically knew the inverse-square law in relation to the drop off of its effects we’d be in a whole lot less public relations trouble. More obviously there is clearly a salience problem with nuclear disasters; people always notice them. For fossil fuels the negative environmental consequences usually don’t get so in your face as ‘fracking’. Or, they’re only really evident in godforsaken places like the Niger Delta. Of course people in Louisiana are well aware of the ‘Cancer Corridor’, but they seem to take it as the cost of doing business by and large. I have a hard time imagining such an equanimous attitude toward nuclear power. So I thought I’d pass on the 1000th article reiterating the obvious, Fossil fuels are far deadlier than nuclear power:

The explanation lies in the large number of deaths caused by pollution. “It’s the whole life cycle that leads to a trail of injuries, illness and death,” says Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. Fine particles from coal power plants kill an estimated 13,200 people each year in the US alone, according to the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (The Toll from Coal, 2010). Additional fatalities come from mining and transporting coal, and other forms of pollution associated with coal. In contrast, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN estimate that the death toll from cancer following the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl will reach around 9000.

In fact, the numbers show that catastrophic events are not the leading cause of deaths associated with nuclear power. More than half of all deaths stem from uranium mining, says the IEA. But even when this is included, the overall toll remains significantly lower than for all other fuel sources.

So why do people fixate on nuclear power? “From coal we have a steady progression of deaths year after year that are invisible to us, things like heart attacks, whereas a large-scale nuclear release is a catastrophic event that we are rightly scared about,” says James Hammitt of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston.

In other news, Vive la France!

Image Credit: Ichabod Paleogene, Krzysztof Kori

Here’s a scatter plot I generated using NationMaster:

Note, I am not from 1950, and I do not believe that nuclear power will be the “miracle energy of the future.” I am no nuclear power maximalist. Rather, I think that we should enter into a calm and medium-term time scale cost vs. benefit analysis, and not react and respond based on our rough reflex heuristics which to me seem more rooted in pre-scientific intuitions and biases, rather than a rational calculus of the positives and negatives. A nuclear meltdown is the sort of danger we were evolved to detect and react to (the analogy would be to a fire). False positives have a much lower downside than false negatives in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness. In contrast, the morbidity inducing consequences of exposure to fossil fuel pollution are “time released” in their impact, with many of them coming to “fruition” after our reproductive peak (I won’t even get into other negative externalities).

A rational weighting of any such global-consequential decision has to be grounded in “doing the sums,” and not allowing our mystical conceptions of contagion to overwhelm our higher faculties. Electricity is electricity, and moves across borders. The ad hoc response of European nations is grounded in local politics of fear, not global assessments of reason. For example, France does export electricity to Germany which is originally nuclear power derived. So in the developed world there is clearly some transparent NIMBY aspect to this, in addition to the psychology of fear.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Futurism

Comments (28)

  1. Chris T

    Singular catastrophes versus drawn out risks hurts the climate change debate as well. People tend to imagine it as one big event some time in the future rather than as the decades long process it actually is. Cue terrible cost analyses (on all sides).

  2. Jon F

    As someone whose entire family comes from coal country I’ve been exquisitely frustrated with the reaction to nuclear power in the news with unbridled fear-mongering and irrational panic, glossing over the fact that fossil fuels are, per capita, something like 3 orders of magnitude more likely to result in loss of human life to procure. Again, not that I’m a cheerleader for nuclear power, just that I think that hysterics are a lousy means of governance. That said, you do have to take what they said in the context that walking into a coffee shop and over-hearing some pseudo-intellectual bullcrap is sort of like shooting fish in a barrel that is also made out of fish.

  3. Christopher Kandrat

    With the recent reaction accident the issue has really became large, but its sorta blown out of the water.

  4. Matunos

    Point well taken in terms of risk assessment. But as for your title’s analogy… when someone is attacked by a shark, nobody has to worry about how to get clean water for their infants 200 miles away.

  5. #4, yes. there are two major issues that i wonder about

    1) the concrete economic cost of the fear. lots of japanese tourism and food export (and internal production & consumption) is going to suffer because of overreaction. so even if you personally don’t substantively assess the risk from a nuclear power plant being near to be that high, you are rational in being NIMBYish because if a problem does occur you’ll get caught in enormous negative media/cultural impact.

    2) stuff like “radiation in water,” etc. i am curious about the relative risk in relation to other risks. for example, the basal level of contamination which leads to mild illness, and sometimes more serious ones, constantly. you can’t engineer away all risk. that’s what i mean by “contagion.” the fear of radiation has pound-for-pound an enormous impact compared to other sorts of contamination.

  6. eyesoars

    In both cases, nuclear and coal, the major issue is “externalities”. For coal, the issues are pollution (primarily land and air); for nuclear, radioactive wastes and “events”.

    For coal, the costs are at least comprehensible and reasonably well understood: smog, haze, strip mines (known if not usually visible), and the threat of global warming.

    For nuclear power, the issues are waste storage (for which we have no solution) and reactor events. In both cases, these issues threaten to make land unusable for indefinite periods, possibly up to thousands of years. Secondarily, power that we generate now generates waste; since we have no meaningful method for storing/disposing of it long term, it is very unclear what the ultimate costs of generating it are. It is those uncertainties that I believe are the issue.

    Certainly it is a major issue in every country that utilizes nuclear power: without subsidies and a government cap on liabilities, it’s unlikely that we would use any nuclear power at all. The potential liabilities for nuclear accidents are such that they would bankrupt even the largest corporations; as a result, the government caps liabilities at US$10B. Similarly, without government intervention, problems of waste storage would be insurmountable — the common corporate strategy of, do it, profit, profit, profit, go bankrupt, leave huge mess for others to clean up would not be acceptable to most of the public when it comes to material that cannot be remediated or destroyed or safely stored near people for tens of thousands of years.

  7. Having said that, uranium mining isn’t pollution/accident/event free either.

    yes, it is mentioned in the article.

    whenever i post nuclear i get reminders about all the problems with it as a technology. that’s fine. that’s why i specifically stipulated that i’m not from 1950. it’s been several generations and there are all sorts of issues. my aim is to keep some perspective. i think the media, and the politicians (in parts of europe), have lost that perspective.

  8. Aslam

    Yes, people have lost perspective but that doesn’t mean we ignore the FACT that there isn’t any stable way to store/dispose nuclear waste for 100,00 years.

  9. dan

    Razib, if you had to have a nuke plant or a coal fired plant built near you which would you choose? Just curious. I have both near me and I’ve been tying to be objective about it but I honestly can’t decide.

    side, note, i believe i just read the first nuclear fusion plant is scheduled to be built in Europe soon. and, yeah, I’ve heard a couple of *amazing* SWPL conversations at the local Middle Eastern restaurant here. nothing entertain me more. it’s like they have some sort of innate sense of the “correct” things to like and hate and don’t even need to confer with each other. I’d bet it’s like Pokemon or football where the audience is self selected based on their biology.

  10. Razib, if you had to have a nuke plant or a coal fired plant built near you which would you choose? Just curious. I have both near me and I’ve been tying to be objective about it but I honestly can’t decide.

    probably nuke. the regions near coal plants i’ve been through look way crappier than those near nuke plants, so there are extraneous reasons 🙂 though re: inverse-square law, define “near”.

    but that doesn’t mean that we ignore the FACT there isn’t any stable way to store/dispose nuclear waste for 100,00 years.

    who ignores that? a lot of this stuff is well known. if it’s a deal breaker, it’s a deal breaker. just stop bringing it up as if people don’t know about this issue, it’s one of the most well known things about nuclear power. though specific elaboration on the logistics/engineering are welcome, instead of catchall FUD-maxims.

  11. To Aslam and Eyesoars, I note that the Egyptians managed to figure out, with bronze age technology, how to preserve human flesh for 3000 years. Seems reasonable to me that we can figure out how to store even nuclear waste for three times or so that period. It is a political problem, not an engineering one.

    Nuclear power is one of those social identifiers. ‘Good’ people can only believe one way on these issues, and all non-believers are bad people.

    I live within sight of a large nuke plant. Without qualms I prefer it to an equivalent fossil fuel plant.

  12. tc

    Before the earthquake/tsunami I would have been 100% in agreement. And if the response to the disasters had gone off without a hitch, then I would have been right with you in laughing at the irrational treehuggers – look, the system worked as planned! But the way it actually played out, as of now, doesn’t sound like this was how it was supposed to go. So my priors have shifted a bit towards “maybe we should be more cautious”.

  13. So my priors have shifted a bit towards “maybe we should be more cautious”.

    that’s the rational thing to do. but, my own general sentiment is not to scuttle nuclear energy, as seems to be an inchoate attitude among many, but to actually improve it. i think the issue is muddied by the fact that many are using the latter rationale to de facto end progress in this domain.

  14. Sandgroper

    After 3/11, uranium mining shares dipped for two days. Two. Days.

    Within that period, I was listening to a guy from the Australian uranium mining industry being interviewed. He was asked if he was worried about the future of the industry. He said no, not at all, that the public would ‘assimilate’ the event within two years (i.e. either get used to it or forget about it) and the ‘nuclear rennaissance’ would be back on track. In my observation, that’s about right – public sensitivity about major disasters has a life of no more than 2-3 years for people who were not directly involved.

    The Fukushima plant is 125 km from a subduction zone on a tectonic plate boundary. If no one was expecting an M9.0 event generating a big tsunami with a recurrence interval of >1,000 years, in my view they should have. They did expect a tsunami, just not one that big.

    What they got wrong was they didn’t put the emergency back-up generators at high enough elevation. That’s all. They got everything else right.

    I’m sceptical the nuclear industry will learn much from this. Nuclear power is already very expensive, and the understanding of tsunami has increased a lot since the Fukushima plant was built. All they have to do is wait a couple of years while the couple with the medium sized SUV have ‘assimilated’ the information and remembered their hunger for plentiful readily available energy, when the risk/benefit will swing back in favour of nuclear.

    FWIW, I’m neither pro nor anti – I see the relative risks and problems for what they are, but I’m not normal when it comes to risk aversion. In any case, what I think is irrelevant, I just don’t think the developed world will have a practical choice. The next generation will be gas-powered (gas as in natural gas, not liquid petrol), the one after will be nuclear-powered. Renewables will play some part, but can’t be the whole answer. The problem of waste disposal will be dealt with when it becomes pressing enough – the answer is to put it into the middle of Australia, which is the most stable continent and one supplying a lot of the uranium. That’s an answer I really don’t like, but what I like is irrelevant.

  15. Solitha

    Hmm, let’s see. A nuclear plant that survived a 9mag earthquake and almost managed to survive a 30-foot tsunami, neither of which were within reasonable bounds of planning; and despite multiple issues, has caused no known fatalities…

    … versus…

    … the red mud spill in Hungary from the Ajka alumina plant that killed 9 people, “extinguished” all life in the Marcal River, and did a bit of nasty to the Danube.

    We live with, and shrug off, a lot worse risks than current-tech nuclear poses. The problem is, nuclear has the boogeyman rep, and may never shake that off.

  16. amphiox

    To Aslam and Eyesoars, I note that the Egyptians managed to figure out, with bronze age technology, how to preserve human flesh for 3000 years.

    Bronze age? Not even that. The ancient Egyptians figured out mummification long before they got bronze age technology. They might have had some copper, but that was it. And it’s even money that they first developed mummification even before they figured out how to use copper.

  17. amphiox

    Fissionable nuclear fuel is a non-renewable resource. So whichever way we ultimately choose to go as a society, the question (and problem) of nuclear fission power will solve itself within 100 years or so at the latest.

  18. Denis Vluegt

    For nuclear power, the issues are waste storage (for which we have no solution)

    Some people would disagree. For example, embedding nuclear waste in salt underground that’s been provably geologically stable for hundreds of thousands of years would seem a pretty good solution to me. (Even if there is a geological event, salt has the nifty property of being “self-healing” in that it expands to fill in any newly created voids. Pockets of water a million years old have been discovered in underground salt deposits.)

    Moreover, even the longest-lived radionucleids decay… eventually. That is not true for some extremely corrosive and nasty waste products from the chemical industry, which will remain in their corrosive and toxic state forever. Their quantities in terms of mass (tonnage) are orders of magnitude higher. Yet no one talks about long-term storage of toxic waste as a deal-breaker on the chemical industry.

  19. It’s psychological. Nuclear power is more scary than coal. You can buy coal in the supermarket. Radioactive material very few people ever have to handle. For most, it’s the ‘invisible stuff that kills.’

  20. Sandgroper

    #16 – It’s not a matter of ‘reasonable bounds of planning’.

    It’s a matter of what could possibly go wrong (possible, not reasonable), what’s the probability and consequence of that, and is it possible to mitigate that, regardless of cost. NB – in the ALARP or ALARA region, cost is not a consideration – if there is something that will further reduce risk and if it is do-able, you have to do it. The R is not open to personal interpretation of what reasonable means.

    If the question was asked whether that subduction zone could possibly generate a megathrust earthquake of moment magnitude 9.0, and whether that could generate a tsunami that could overtop the seawalls (bearing in mind that tsunami are translational waves, not rotational like normal ocean waves, so they have huge amounts of kinetic energy), and whether such an event might have occurred previously in that region before recorded human history, the answer had to be yes. This was not a black swan event. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which was also not a black swan event, was a wake-up call for plant owners to revisit their risk assessments to see if they had missed anything. If they didn’t do that, well, then I guess they didn’t.

    I’d guess that’s what the Chinese, Germans, Americans and everyone else is doing right now – going over the risk assessments and thinking “Christ, did we miss anything?” Because after this, if someone else has a similar incident, they’re history. In the case of Fukushima, this will be played out in court, probably over a long period of time.

    No one has died from Fukushima yet, but it’s an odds-on bet that some will at some time in the future. On the other hand, the consequences should not be exaggerated.

    Will nuclear always have its boogeyman rep? Yes, of course it will – human risk aversion has been much studied and is well understood, and big factors have to be allowed for involuntary risks, no personal control, ‘dread’ and ‘unkown’, all of which apply to nuclear. It’s futile to argue this is irrational, it’s the human response to risk and the reality we have to work with. The shark attack analogy is entirely appropriate in that sense, it carries the same risk aversion factors. For nuclear, you can now add lack of trust, and justifiably so.

    Nuclear will become acceptable again when the population perceives the benefit to outweigh the risk, appropriately factored.

    That different levels of risk aversion are applied to coal plants, chemical waste and mine tailings may be irritating as hell, but it is what it is. Nuclear power plants are meant to serve the community – if they say they don’t want it, after appropriate education, then they don’t want it. The power companies have really not helped themselves in the past by covering up, when a policy of total transparency and pro-active public communication would have served them a lot better going forward.

    Let people have rolling blackouts for a while, or hike the price of electricity, then go back again and see if the folks have changed their minds. But for chrissake, tell the truth.

  21. Sandgroper

    Credit hikosaemon: “Breakdown of Japan’s electric power sources – 20% nuclear, 19% hydro, 60.5% thermal (fuel based), 0.5 renewable.” Not all of the thermal is coal or oil, a lot of it is liquified natural gas. I’m not an expert on the differences, but I do know LNG is a lot cleaner than coal. I don’t know the quantified risks associated with using LNG.

  22. 4runner

    I never understood the “we need to figure out how to store the waste for 100,000 years right now” argument.

    Don’t we just need to store the waste long enough for human technology to improve? How far down the road is fission? 3000 years? How far is inexpensive, routine space travel? 1000 years? Why can’t we assume that the future will solve the waste storage problem?

  23. Chris T

    Most people don’t realize this, but nuclear ‘waste’ represents 99% of the potential energy content! We only use 1% of the available energy with a once through cycle; a further 4% can be used with reprocessing (banned in the United states). What makes nuclear waste unusable, is the build up of heavy elements (heavier than uranium) which serve as neutron absorbers and eventually stop fission reactions.

    However, there are some designs on the drawing board that would use much higher percentages of the fuel and would vastly decrease the amount of radioactive material left over. Additionally, Molten Salt reactors which use thorium have been studied and tested to some extent. Thorium is a much more common element and is not prone to melting down (it’s already molten and adding heat actually impedes fission). The cycle also produces far less waste.

    The waste problem isn’t as big a problem as people think.

  24. asdf

    Nuclear is really the answer to all energy problems. Read David McKay, Oxford physicist on this. He does the math and shows it’s the most clean/cost-effective from a pure technical standpoint:

    Re: Fukushima, will not be a big deal in the long run for two reasons. First, take a look at how quickly people started calling for drilling again. Now that gas prices have spiked thanks to more war in the Middle East and Obama’s ban on offshore drilling, drill-baby-drill looks pretty good again.

    Second, the SWPLs aren’t going to be ruling the earth for too much longer. After the US economy *really* craters, it’s all China from here on out. And China loves them some nukes:

  25. dave chamberlin

    It is simple. Don’t build them on the coasts, adopt the newer designs that shut down automatically, design them to withstand powerful earthquakes no matter where they are built because we simply don’t yet know where all the fault lines are. But who listens to logic. China will lead the way because they have the low interest money to do it. Where nuclear reactors get built has a lot more to do with economics than popularity.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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