Archive for March 16th, 2011
Yesterday I tweeted
Lesson from Japan is not that nuke power is dangerous. Tsunamis are dangerous. Four lost trains are not being used to bash train travel.
and frankly, it got a hell of a response (according to my modest standards) of 28 retweets (and a couple of copy/tweet RTs) at the time of this writing. With that comes a few responses that disagree. I’m not about to get into a discussion on twitter, explaining the details I couldn’t cram into 140 characters, into a series of messages limited to 140 characters.
I have a blog for that.
I was chided for the comparison with the lost trains
People would bash train travel too if one of the lost trains exploded and caused 1250 sq Km evacuation
This misses the point I was trying to make. Trains wreck and even explode (I’ve linked to some spectacular explosions from trains) and yet people are not widely afraid of train travel. In this particular instance, nobody is blaming train travel for the loss of the trains — they blame the tsunami. Why? because train travel is normally quite safe, and it took an unusual event — a rare, massive (especially for that fault line) earthquake followed by a wall of water to cause these events. Nobody has a problem identifying the trigger. The earthquake caused the Fujinuma irrigation dam to collapse. Do we now question the inherent safety of dams? Is there a call to eliminate them? Do dams, or trains, evoke the visceral response that nuclear power does? How much area was evacuated in response to the tsunami warning — was it more than 1250 square kilometers?
The issue is the asymmetric assessment of risk (or complete disregard for risk assessment, in some cases). There is a false premise used by some that if nuclear power is not risk-free then it cannot be permitted. This standard is applied almost nowhere else, because it can’t be. You are at risk if you get out of your bed in the morning, but you’re at risk if you stay in bed — there is always risk. In the time that Fukushima Daiichi reactor #1 has been operating, the US has averaged more than 40,000 automobile deaths per year. Why is that tolerable? It’s because we don’t assess the risk in the same way. A large number of people (potentially) dying all at once evokes a greater emotional response than the same number (or even more) dying over a period of time
Part of it is the same reason behind being willing to seemingly spare no expense to stop terror attacks, despite the relatively few who have died from them. We have a similar reaction to the term “radiation” as we do to “terrorism.” But coal plants are famous for the amount of radioactive material they spew into the environment. Hell, bananas are radioactive, as are people.
The bottom line is that, according to the available information, the almost-40-year-old reactors held up remarkably well to the earthquake itself, and it was the resulting tsunami that took out the backup systems that are now causing the (quite serious) problems. But one has to put this in context of the scope of the devastation, rather than holding the risk up to an impossible zero-tolerance standard. Put another way: how many people died in this tragedy, and what’s getting most of the press?