Fukushima and The Perception of Risk

(Kirk’s note: I’d like to welcome Rick Martin as an author on Energy from Thorium. Rick is a prolific author whom many of you might remember from his WIRED article on thorium. Rick is writing a new book on advanced nuclear technology–keep your eye out for it! Welcome Rick!)

In the wake of the serial failures of cooling and containment systems at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, the public is once again being asked to re-consider the dangers of nuclear power technology. Plenty of the responses have taken predictable courses. At U.S. PIRG (the association of state public-interest groups), the issue is closed: “Unacceptable Risk” is the title of the group’s latest report on nuclear power, which cites “Two Decades of ‘Close Calls,’ Leaks and Other Problems at U.S. Nuclear Reactors.”

Empirically, the actual risks of nuclear power – which tend to be minuscule and spread over thousands of years, as this New York Times story documents – are negligible compared to those of burning fossil fuels, which, based on current trends will unquestionably lead to a disastrous rise in average global temperatures over the next century. Six thousand people died in coal mining accidents in China last year; “In just the past year in the United States, the Deepwater Horizon blowout killed 11 people,” the Times noted, “the Upper Big Branch coal mine blast killed 29 and a natural gas pipeline explosion in California killed 8.” Deaths from accidents at nuclear power plants, 1990-2010: zero.

“Since air pollution from coal burning is estimated to be causing 10,000 deaths per year,” wrote Bernard Cohen, a physics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, in a study of the risks of nuclear power, “there would have to be 25 melt-downs each year for nuclear power to be as dangerous as coal burning.”

But people don’t perceive risks empirically: they respond more to the possibility of sudden catastrophe than to the certainty of prolonged, slow-motion havoc. It’s the plane-crash effect: fear of flying led to hundreds of additional deaths in automobiles in the months after 9/11, and the 32,000 or so people killed every year on U.S. highways rate far smaller headlines than an fatal airline accident that takes the lives of a couple of hundred people. A Chernobyl-sized nuclear accident is much more terrifying, though far less likely, than the gradual desertification of large swathes of the American West.

(It’s also the shark-attack effect: far more people drown in backyard swimming pools every year than die in shark attacks, but nobody ever made a scary movie about stumbling on your kid’s tricycle and hitting your head on the diving board.)

In a column with a familiar headline – “The True Costs of Nuclear Power” – Anne Appelbaum of Slate even trots out a cultural stereotype to justify irrational fears of nuclear power: “If the competent and technologically brilliant Japanese can’t build a completely safe reactor, who can?”

Appelbaum also recycles the hoary argument that the risks of nuclear power make it too expensive. “The cost of … a potential catastrophe is partly reflected in the price of plant construction.”

That’s confusing cause and effect: Building nuclear plants is not costly because of the risk of accident; it’s costly because public perceptions of risk enforce unreasonable licensing delays and add expensive, over-engineered containment systems, and investors price those risks into their funding models.

This sort of thing drives data-driven people – like me, and like many of the readers of this blog – crazy. If the public just had a “better,” more rational perception of risk, we fume, the obvious benefits of nuclear power would win out and the “true costs” of nuclear power would be understood, rather than exaggerated.

That in itself may be a fallacy, though. In 2004 George Gaskell, a professor at the Centre for Analysis of Risk and Regulation at the London School of Economics, wrote a paper along with six other authors looking at the perceptions of risk around genetically modified foods. What they found is that there’s an inverse relationship between the perception of benefits and the understanding of risk: for large numbers of people, “opposition to GM foods arises from a perception of the absence of benefits, a sufficient condition for rejection,” rather than a straightforward perception of risk. When perceived benefits go up, perceived risk goes down.

In other words, your perception of the risks of eating cheeseburgers depends not so much on your understanding of the health dangers of a diet of fatty red meat versus, say, steamed broccoli. It depends on how much you like cheeseburgers.

For supporters of alternative forms of nuclear power, that would seem to open up a public relations opportunity. Advocates of thorium power should focus more on benefits rather than comparative risks, in order to, in theory, shift the debate away from Chernobyl and toward clear skies, global climate stability and verdant forests. Everybody likes cheeseburgers.

12 thoughts on “Fukushima and The Perception of Risk

  1. People love cars more than they love cheeseburgers.

    Rather than selling the idea of the LFTR for cheap electricity (as well as the other benefits), it might be better to try to couple it with other technology and sell it as a method to generate fuel for existing vehicles (and then electricity later).

    If the LFTR can be used to produce fuel at a comparable price to today but be stable, I think you'll get protests of motorists demanding this be done.

    Motorists have had a rough time over the last 20 years and most see a very bleak future in regard to car usage. The lure of guilt free, affordable motoring will easily beat away the nuclear fear mongers.

    I know I'm probably down playing the complexity of doing this and I know it'll probably be more environmentally friendly to target replacement of coal plants but this might get people to stop and listen.

    Yeah, the efficiency of producing fuel for existing vehicles might not be as good as aiming to produce fuel for future vehicles but starting with something people can use now will gain you a lot of support.

  2. Excellent points Rick. That's one of the reasons I have tried to emphasize a lot of the other things that LFTRs can do in addition to generating electrical power:

    1. Using waste heat for desalination
    2. Using primary heat for thermochemical generation of liquid fuels (hydrocarbons) or ammonia for fertilizer
    3. Removing fission products for use as medical radioisotopes (Mo-99, I-131, Xe-133)
    4. Generating radioisotopes to help NASA explore deep space (Pu-238)

    When people see the cornucopia of products that can be safely generated from this machine I think their support will go way up.

  3. As far as risk is concerned, I suggest taking this approach: The benefit of the LFTR is not so much that its risk is less than for a PWR (whose risk is already very small). Rather, that the risk of the LFTR can be reduced with less expense and complication. Instead of a containment dome to mitigate a hydrogen or steam explosion, the LFTR uses a coolant that operates at normal air pressure and won't generate hydrogen. Instead of multiply redundant sources of back-up power and cooling, the LFTR can fall back on passive cooling backed up by a freeze plug, etc.

    Systems that depend on complexity for safety are hard to defend in a public debate, and it's also hard to maintain the effort to keep all those redundant systems operating over many years when nothing interesting is happening. Simplicity helps credibility.

  4. This is a well timed entry especially following your spot on KGO radio last night, http://vaca.bayradio.com/kgo_archives/kgo_player…..
    Again, good job presenting and explaining LFTR.
    The one disappointing thing about it was the takeaway from that whole hour ended up being an argument on the history of nuclear energy safety, not the promise of a rediscovered technology. At the top of the next hour the thing that stuck in the interviewers mind and her listeners wasn't "this guy has a great new idea" but "this guy with the great new idea thinks TMI was no big deal."
    JVZ has it right above. Treat the safety of the nuke power industry as a given and focus on the inherent, simple, passive safety design of LFTR as an alternative.

  5. I saw a report on Fox News where the mother of a Fukushima worker related that her son and co-workers were convinced that they would die from their radiation exposure. I doubt anybody will report on it when they're all still alive next year.

  6. “there would have to be 25 melt-downs each year for nuclear power to be as dangerous as coal burning.”

    Maybe so, so don't use coal either.

    We are a smart species. Let's stop thinking about short term profits and start thinking about the absolutely safe energies that the earth give us in abundance:

    Geothermal, wind, solar, hydro, tide, wave and bio

    I agree the nuclear had become safer, but nuclear will NEVER go forward without government subsidies – and the waste from nuclear will have to be guarded generation after generation via TAXES.

    Nuclear power is socialism – the PERPETUAL merger of monied interests to the government into the farthest foreseeable future

  7. Trotting out the threat of DISASTROUS global warming in ONE HUNDRED YEARS time, is no better than the nuclear alarmists.

    I'm with you your other points, but you lose credibility when you play the same alarmist game. Clearly, LFTR will be running somewhere within 100 years if its what is said here; and so will likely dozens of other solutions to the "carbon threat" (if it even exists). 100 years ago we were still crapping in out houses and horse droppings were the biggest threat. Fosil fuels solved that mess. Personally, I believe that the genomics or proteomics revolutions (such as Craig Ventor's bacteria with a computer as it's mother) will allow us to easily control any and all greenhouse gases should they truly present any problems. A lot is going to happen in 100 years. More then the last 100 (unless we do something really stupid).

    To use the same scare tactics as the climate alarmists is ingenuous. Your argument would have been far stronger if you left that out. Using it makes your other arguments lose credibility.

  8. Renewable energy is far more dangerous than nuclear and also requires large amounts of land to be wasted to collect the diffuse energy available to steal from nature (whereas the energy in Uranium and Thorium isn't being used).

    In a free market with no subsidies (which also means no one gets to emit CO? for free) nuclear wins almost every time.

    ET: Concern trolling to get us to give up one of the best arguments for nuclear (i.e. it's needed to solve global warming) really isn't welcome around here.

  9. For all of that I recall a Californian in the late 1960's telling me that "We will give up breathing before we give up out 400+ cu-in engines.

    We LIKE "muscle cars" here!

    Attitudes CAN change, it just happens slowly and with a LOT of fuss!

  10. The danger of the hamburger is not, if you don't eat the bun particularly is the beef is from 100% grass feed organic beef.

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