Saturday, April 2, 2011

Scare Me Some More

I don't want to hear the industry and its regulators talk this way after Fukushima. I don't want to hear confidence and assurances. I want to hear humility and a ruthless re-examination of assumptions.
William Saletan "Shaken to the Core"
I have to admit that I almost took Mr. Saletan's article in Friday's edition of Slate as a tasteless April Fool's Day joke. Not because it was laden with inappropriate and unecessary humor, but because of the basic silliness of its premise.
And [William] Levis, in his concluding remarks, found the right tone of humility. "What is it that we don't know?" he asked. "If the heat sink is lost, what would you do? If you lost emergency A/C power, what would you do? We ask ourselves continually those what-if questions, and 'What have we missed here?' "

Keep asking those questions, and we'll all feel safer.
No, Mr. Saletan, we all won't. Sure some of us will, but the nuclear industry understands, just like every other industry understands, that if you're ever at a point where you don't appear to be confident in what you're doing, your critics will seize the opportunity, and attempt to make sure that noone else feels confident in what you're doing, either. Especially given a situation like nuclear power. Mr. Saletan points out that: "Measured by accidents, direct fatalities, and indirect health damage, nuclear energy is many times safer than fossil fuel production." But that should be obvious - the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion and the BP Deepwater Horizon rig disaster both have direct body counts associated with them, while Fukushima does not - yet. There, is however, a significant difference between coal and oil disasters and nuclear ones - coal and oil usually have the good grace to confine the deaths to people who work in the industry, allowing the rest of us to put the fatalities out of our minds. Both of these events took place this month last year. I'll bet you the average person on the street couldn't tell you how many people died in those accidents. This (along with the perceived need for oil and coal) gives the coal and oil industries a little more leeway to be publicly self-questioning - when they publicly wring their hands about safety problems, the lives the general public sees as being at risk are not their own. Sure, people have sympathy for the poor sods who are killed in accidents, but "Why don't they just work someplace else?" is never as far from the surface, I think, as we like to tell ourselves. Nuclear accidents, on the other hand, can get you from a much longer distance away, and so don't end at the plant gates. It's that difference that's important. Given news reports that radition from Fukushima has made it as far as Massachusetts, for the nuclear industry to come out and say that they're uncertain of the safety of their plants could spark NIMBYism on nearly a global scale.

But just as important, it's up to us, as the people who use energy on a daily basis, to understand that there's no such thing as perpetually abundant, clean, cheap and safe energy yet. Now, we might be able to change that at some point, finding a way to harvest sunlight, winds, waves and the heat of the Earth to completely supplant not only the worldwide power grid, but our vehicular energy needs as well (even though we're likely to always need some sorts of volatile fuels for high-performance applications), or maybe we'll even hit upon a way to make fusion power work. But we aren't there yet. And if we set an unreasonably high standard for acceptance of things that we feel we depend on, we tend to trigger two effects - the first being a willingness to bend the truth (if not outright lie) to tell us that those standards are being met and the second being a willingness to believe what we're told, rather than go without. It's no different than a vendor selling food of dubious freshness to a hungry person - the vendor is inclined to say what he needs to in order to make the sale, and the hungry person is inclined to believe what he needs to in order to eat. In such a marketplace, being upfront about questionable freshness simply means that customers go to the person who won't bother them with the details.

It's part of the downside of any large and diverse enterprise. The motivation is always to play to the single largest potential audience that can be garnered. Those people who fall outside of the primary demographic find themselves underserved. This isn't to say that I'm a fan of that situation. I would like it to change, too. But I'm not going to go on the record as saying that I expect anyone to do something that they understand to be not in their interests, just because I would like them to do so. So I put up with the fact that there's at least one nuclear reactor that you could say close enough to where I live that were anything to happen, life would really suck. Of course I also live near a subduction zone and I can go outside on a clear day and not have to walk too far to have direct line-of-sight to a dormant (but not extinct) volcano, considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Clearly, I'm okay with something less than absolute safety. But, reasonably or not, a lot of us aren't (and there's always someone to tell us that things are more dangerous than we think) and so it doesn't make a lot of sense to expect people to call more attention to the potential dangers than they really have to.

It was 40, by the way. 29 at Upper Big Branch, and 11 in the Deepwater Horizon.

1 comment:

Keifus said...

I didn't read the Saletan article--I'm not a big fan of his, and if he's out there concern-trolling nuclear power, it's pretty much par for his course. I believe you that he's pretty damn obnoxious in that one.

I think I disagree with you here on some things though, maybe minor to your point. I mean, I think the scale (and government involvement and natural monopoly) of power generation makes it fundamentally different from selling fruit. And I think hydrocarbon energy has some similar problems in that department, and may even be worse if less acutely scary. Carbon pollution gets in the whole atmosphere too, and people are pretty worried about its long-term effects. The BP spill shitcanned the economy of a whole region. Other effluents of coal and gas production and combustion (SO2, Se and other rare elements, NOx, organics) tend to get in the air and groundwater, and also kill lots of people.

Personally, I wish that the dangers of all the energy sectors were discussed reasonably and openly, as we all (well, Americans) use an unbelievable lot of it, and it affects pretty much everyone on the planet in terms of externalities. Not that I'm holding my breath.