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Who’s afraid of the nuclear wolf?

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets.

The tragedy unfolding in Japan has cast a sharp light on the safety or otherwise of nuclear power. However, using a rare accident as a reason to reject an entire technology is short-sighted. Hysteria serves no useful purpose.

At the risk of sounding callous about the loss of human life and property as a result of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I’ll follow the lead of the ecomentalists and address the consequences for nuclear power.

At the time of writing, the ultimate fate of the Daiichi nuclear reactors at Fukushima remains unclear. That has not stopped the ill-informed fear-mongering about nuclear meltdown on television, however.

For a superb discussion of exactly how the plants in question work, and why even a melt-down won’t be likely to have the severe health and environmental consequences of Cherbnobyl, read this well-researched post: Why I am not worried about Japan’s nuclear reactors.

Of course, this post could be wrong. A full meltdown could still occur, and it is possible that its containment could fail. The most recent news suggests that it’s on the severe end of the accident scale, with at least some risk to the people and environment in the immediate area.

Even if meltdown is avoided, the situation is also very grave for the company that operates the plant, and the impact on the Japanese electricity supply will be felt for years.

Even in the unlikely event that significant amounts of persistent radioactive material is released into the environment, however, this still would not constitute a good argument against nuclear power.

For a start, consider the magnitude of the event that caused the damage at the reactors. There is no reasonable way to plan for catastrophes on this scale. Some damage at a nuclear plant pales beside the terrible toll the earthquake, tsunami and aftershocks have taken in terms of human life, limb and property.

If a tall building collapses in an earthquake, causing thousands of deaths, do we react by saying we shouldn’t build tall buildings anymore? The rational response would be to revisit the structural engineering of such buildings, and make them as safe as possible in extreme circumstances.

This is exactly what was done at the Fukushima nuclear plants. Although the plants were forty years old, they had been designed to withstand an 8.2 magnitude quake, and are still more or less standing even after a quake five times as strong, plus a destructive tsunami to boot. That this is so is a testament to the safety of nuclear power, not to its inherent lack of safety. No doubt new measures will be installed, to protect other nuclear power stations from even worse natural catastrophes. For sure, modern plants built today will be orders of magnitude safer than even the robust reactors at Fukushima.

To assess risk, one needs two variables: the potential severity or cost of an incident, and the likelihood of it happening.

When a passenger airliner crashes, the incident is widely perceived to be very serious. Often, many people come to gruesome ends in such crashes, and the horror is splashed over the front pages and on TV screens for days. However, the actual incidence of crashes is low, thanks to many years of hard work to improve the engineering of aircraft. The upshot is the famous factoid that your chances of dying in an aircraft accident are much smaller than the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident. In fact, even if you were to commute by plane every single day, instead of driving, you’d be about five times less likely to die in an accident.

That the magnitude of individual events is large does not make a good argument against flying.

The same goes for nuclear accidents. An explosive release of heavily radioactive material on the scale of Chernobyl is exceptionally rare. Unique, in fact. It was the consequence of an evil combination of human factors, including active recklessness. It would not be a stretch to blame it on communism, rather than on any fundamental safety issues with nuclear power.

Considerable disagreement exists about the long-term consequences of Chernobyl, largely thanks to a lack of adequate data. However, the most authoritative study on the subject, conducted in 2003 by the World Health Organisation, reflect considerably less severe consequences than the popular media had us believe.

That is not to dismiss such incidents, any more than one dismisses an aircraft crash as isolated and insignificant. From each case, we can (and ought to) learn, in order to improve safety in future.

However, to reject nuclear power as a reliable, clean and effective source of energy on the basis of a remarkably small number of incidents, only one of which had significant environmental or health consequences, is to throw out the baby with the bath water.

The owners of Fukushima will take a big hit, as will the Japanese population that depends on the energy it used to produce. This is incentive enough to invest significant money and effort into preventing a repeat of the scenario that is playing itself out this week.

A good argument against nuclear power would be based on cost-efficiency. Accidents, especially when they appear to be exaggerated by a media industry that thrives on the alarmism of sensational phrases like “nuclear meltdown”, do not make a good argument.

Given the rarity of nuclear power plant incidents, and the even more rare examples of significantly harmful consequences, opposing nuclear power on the grounds of risk is as irrational as a fear of flying.

Far from being a rational, intelligent argument, nuclear fear is a reactionary political position that appeals to old Luddites, young radicals, superstitious fools and people who think the lottery is worth playing.

If we took such fears seriously, we wouldn’t get out of bed in the mornings, for fear of tripping over the rug.

And now, instead of turning this natural disaster into an excuse to shout ill-informed slogans against nuclear power, can we please direct our attention to the many thousands of human victims? DM


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