Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Nuclear Energy and Risk

Elizabeth Kolbert is a fine science writer.  Her explanations of the complicated mechanisms — geothermal, marine chemical, atmospheric, and so forth — underlying climate change are clear and compelling.

But I confess I’m no fan of her work.  Kolbert’s sky-is-falling! rhetoric is a little too florid, and her criticism of people who don’t act environmentally a little too pointed.

Yet, her short piece in this week’s New Yorker, “The Nuclear Risk,” is terrific.  It’s worth reading.   She gets at a central lesson of the radioactivity crisis that followed on the earthquake + tsunami disaster:  you can only plan for the disasters you’re able to conceive of.  The Japanese catastrophe, she writes

illustrates, so starkly and so tragically, [that] people have a hard time planning for events that they don’t want to imagine happening. But these are precisely the events that must be taken into account in a realistic assessment of risk. We’ve more or less pretended that our nuclear plants are safe, and so far we have got away with it. The Japanese have not.

That the nuclear crisis is supposedly under control now, or might be under control if some new problems are dealt with, doesn’t change the planning problem (and have a look at this blog post by Evan Osnos for a worrying take on what happens to people who are facing such a triplex disaster scenario).

Kolbert relates the problem of nuclear planning in the U.S. to corporate interference with regulatory agencies, quoting the Government Accountability Office’s finding that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has based its policies

on what the industry considered reasonable and feasible to defend against rather than on an assessment of the terrorist threat itself.

It’s disturbing that industry and regulators are on intimate terms, but it isn’t exactly news — not in regard to energy policy, nor health policy (for example, consider the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which I wrote about a year ago).   The comfortable collusion between corporations and government agencies is an issue — but it’s not the most troubling lesson of the Japanese crisis.

Rather, the main event is the inevitability of unforeseen and unforeseeable disasters.  And the simple impossibility of making plans to avoid what can’t be imagined.

Which is where I part company with Kolbert.   Would better planning (or stricter regulation of industry) have avoided the near-catastrophic radioactive release at Daichii?  Yes, perhaps.  But nobody could have foreseen an earthquake of this magnitude, or infrastructure so destabilized by a tsunami as fast-moving and destructive as this one, or the double-punch effect occurring where it did and how it did.  There’s only so much you can plan because there’s only so much you can envisage.

And that’s the problem with the idea of planning to reduce risk.  You plan for what you know. Maybe you plan for something a little worse than what you’ve seen before — but even that is basically what you know, with a little juicing to make it livelier.   Even the pure-fantasy regulatory agency — the one with firewall immunity from influence by industry, perfectly competent engineering of its plans, and state-of-the-art technology — can’t foresee every eventuality.  Therefore, even the best planning won’t eliminate risk.

In the end, the question isn’t just how to keep the energy industry away from the regulators.   It’s how to live in a universe that isn’t completely predictable, no matter how good you think your “science” is.   And is ruled by random, implacable, and sometimes highly destructive nature.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 at 8:05 pm and is filed under climate change, News, Risk, science, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

4 Responses to “Nuclear Energy and Risk”

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dan doniger says:

Your writing has been a source of news and understanding, phil. for me, no tv, rarely the radio, and nowhere beyond the front page of the newspaper, so the news of the hour comes from other sources. thank you.

your question, how to live in a universe that isn’t completely predictable, in regards to nuclear power, has my response–to act with precaution. When the nuclear power industry and their government colluders build plants, if only they would consider catastrophic possibilities such as tsunamis and earthquakes. Precautionary planning is not the way of the nuclear power industry. how does risk change and what are the chances an owner of energy company is willing to take when he has limited liability for accidents, receives huge government subsidies, loan guarantess and deregulations of taxes. In the usa, the nuclear power industry has indemnity–the Price-Anderson Nuclear Indemnities Act, passed in 1957 and renewed in 2005, which restricts costs payable by utility companies due to damage, death or disability from nuclear power. No insurance company covers the public for damages from a nuclear power plant. The so-called safe levels of radiation allowed in the ground, air, and water which the nuclear power industry uses as a guide and cites whenever there are leaks are more arbitrary than science. Perhaps in Japan there is a similar set-up. Nuclear power is a way to boil water for turning a turbine to make electricity–an expensive, dangerous way. Risks this industry takes is a function of the protection it has been granted, and its collusion with the government and military.

    Philip Alcabes says:

    I’m so glad to have your comments here, Dan! As always, you’re educating me — here, about the Price-Anderson Act and ancillary assumptions about safety and risk.

    Let’s say there were no Price-Anderson, and the energy industry had to assume liability for damage from nuclear accidents: presumably (given the potential for really severe harm, as witness Chernobyl), there would be no plants built like Fukushima Daishii. The industry would take much greater pains to ensure safety. I think that’s part of your point.

    Perhaps there would be no nuclear power plants at all, if the industry were liable. They would have to create energy in other ways. That’s another part of your point.

    But here’s where society runs into its modernity-and-risk problem: All forms of high-volume energy production carry some potential for harm. People are harmed by reactor meltdowns or leaks. People are harmed by the air pollution from coal-fired electricity generation. Low-volume forms, like solar and wind, present less safety hazard but don’t meet society’s needs for powering automobiles, airplanes, computers, and so on.

    So some decisions have to be made about tolerable harms. This sounds terrible. It’s nice to think that there might be a zero-tolerance policy i.e., no potential harm is acceptable. But then no cars, airplanes, etc. No modernity. How does society make this awful decision about what harms are tolerable? Who gets to decide?

      dan doniger says:

      Thank you, Phil. It would be interesting to see the huge subsidies the nuclear power industry gets, given to renewable energy companies, along with the loan guarantees and tax breaks. Our society has not been proactive about conserving energy, but this may change.

      Precaution with toxic matter would lead to safer energy production. The nuclear power industry calls its wastes ‘spent fuel,’ and they have no viable plan, no solution on what to do with it. To have had a single power plant constructed without a workable plan for dealing with the waste is evidence of who decides what harms are tolerable–the Wall Street-military-industrial energy complex . Spent fuel is exactly what it is not–it is mostly plutonium, and it is stockpiled on-site at each of the 104 nuclear power plants in this country in pools, most of which have no backup electricity. Russian dumps theirs in the Arctic Sea; Finland has a geologic depository.

      A case in point is Indian Point nuclear power plant on the beautiful Hudson River, not far from where I live. The two reactors at Indian Point are up for re-licensing in 2012 & 2013. Nuclear power plants in this country when they were constructed were given 40-year licenses. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has and will grant re-licensing to every owner of a nuclear power plant, I have no doubt. Most of the plants are reaching 40 years of age, and they are wearing down, leaking, and are not retro-fitted with the most advanced and safest technology. Retrofitting the plant’s wastewater system to make it less harmful would be a good thing and not difficult to do, but Entergy, Indian Point’s owners, resists.

      NYC and Westchester receive about 4 percent of their energy from Indian Point and could easily manage without it. The NRC identifies the Indian Point facility, out of all 104 nuclear reactors in this country, as the one with the highest risk of catastrophic failure due to an earthquake.Indian Point is 35 miles from midtown Manhattan, and 20 million people live within a 50 mile radius–Americans in Japan within 50 miles of Fukushima plant were advised to evacuate. As you can imagine, there is no evacuation plan which would work given the traffic in the greater metropolitan region. Is a meltdown a tolerable risk? Is it worth the chance to find out?