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.
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.