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.