March 20, 2011

Risk, Trust, and the Arrogance of Numbers

In the next couple of days, I will be getting on a plane to go to Las Vegas. I'll be visiting the Atomic Testing Museum and touring the Nevada Test Site, and I'll be flying home. None of that worries me particularly. I'm well aware that I'm much more likely to get hit by a car walking to and from work each day. I should be--it's happened before and I have close calls a minimum of once a week.

That said, I'm still already tired of people telling me how safe--safe, I tell you!--the nuclear power industry is. Some of that is people reacting to any complaint about the industry or the passing along of the scanty news coming out of Japan as though someone were saying the sky is falling, and putting out fatal doses of radiation in the meantime.

Some of it, however, is the reliance of a particular type of information telling me that nuclear energy is as safe as it gets. For example, I've been referred to this set of numbers frequently:

Deaths per TWh for all energy sources

Coal – world average: 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China: 278
Coal – USA: 15
Oil: 36 (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas: 4 (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass: 12
Peat: 12
Solar (rooftop): 0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind: 0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro: 0.10 (Europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro - world including Banqiao: 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear: 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

There are quite a few things that bother me about these numbers. The coal and biofuel safety numbers don't come with a disclaimer that the greatest number of additional deaths from these fuels are due to indoor use for cooking, not from industrial energy production. Wind and solar energy numbers don't reflect that these are developing industries, without decades of safety standards behind them. (Including development numbers for nuclear would drastically change the picture there, given that it was a technology born out of war.) None of these numbers include the costs of destruction of ecosystems, displacement, and unrest caused by the exploitation of resources required.

All those are difficult to quantify, however, and there are no guarantees that they would drastically change the relative risks (except for removing figures for indoor cooking). It is entirely possible that the nuclear power industry has the best track record for the last fifty years or so. I certainly can't tell you it doesn't. That still doesn't give me warm fuzzies over nuclear power, and it kind of creeps me out that it reassures others.

Why? Largely because I live in Minneapolis. I've been through something like this before.

Until the 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, all the statistical data we had said highway bridges were very safe. Collapse was unthinkable based on the numbers. The problem with those statistics is that they were looking at a bunch of bridges that were built around the same time. The data also couldn't account for the pattern of neglect that U.S. infrastructure had undergone for a couple of decades (a form of political corruption). Once we looked at actual bridges instead of historical data, we discovered that many bridges were downright dangerous, on or near the point of serious failure. Without repair and replacement, bridge safety statistics were about to become obsolete in a big way.

We're at a very similar point with what we know about nuclear power production. We have an aging infrastructure, with plants nearing (or past) life expectancy. In order to determine what effect that's likely to have on safety, we need honest evaluation of the current situation, not just the assumption that things will continue as they always have. We are currently reliant on the industry for that evaluation. The question of how much we trust the industry is highly relevant.

It will take time and analysis to be sure, but many of the details that have come out of Fukushima suggest that TEPCO wasn't keeping up with the times in maintaining safety systems. It wasn't applying lessons from prior earthquakes. Early statements from TEPCO suggest it wasn't accurately assessing the risk of the situation. Neither were many others who were speaking for the industry.

That, not historical figures, is what future risk looks like, unless we rebuild the aging infrastructure. Then it might be reasonable to rely on history again. Now, there's a very large question mark that can't be filled in by saying, "Oh, it's always been this way."

Numbers are nice and reassuring, but you need to know what's behind them too. In this case, you need to understand that at least some of your comfort relies on the energy industry stepping up and behaving.

Not only that, but they must behave in a non-competitive situation. The energy situation is very different than the airline situation, to use another example where people are constantly told their fears are irrational. Our energy demand is going up and up, and we can't just say, "No, thank you. I trust this company more, so I'll get my energy from them." We don't have the luxury of looking at nuclear power plants in which we have invested billions of dollars and changing our minds about them, and we'd be unlikely to even if we had that luxury.

We have very few options to make the industry behave where we have allowed it to flourish. That means we must plan for a certain amount of corruption at the executive level. That means that Fukushima, rather than being considered an aberration, must be considered one of the normal failures of the industry, and more so as the demand for energy increases. No matter what the historical numbers say.

If you, personally. want to rely on the historical numbers, or if you need to use them to manage your own anxieties in a productive way, I get that. However, they're nothing like the whole picture in Fukushima or in any future decision-making about nuclear power. Please refrain from suggesting to the rest of us that the numbers are the only things with which we need to concern ourselves.

8 comments:

D. C. said...

Up until the Challenger blew up, the space shuttle was the safest transportation ever: zero fatalities, lots and lots of distance.

Read the Commission's report on how it came to blow up. If you don't read anything else, read Richard Feynman's [1] separate report.

The bottom line: a long history of getting away with progressively riskier practices tempts management to cut corners until things go wrong. When the risks are high-probability, low-consequence events (think using bleach and ammonia, which people usually survive) they eventually settle on an "acceptable risk" level that works. Sort of like, "forty thousand a year dead from automobiles is an acceptable risk."

When the probability is very low, that system doesn't work. At one extreme, we have the continuing panic over air terrorism: very little actual risk, but one medium-sized [2] bad example. At the other, we have global climate catastrophe: risk is debatable, but the potential outcomes are worse than anything we've ever seriously imagined (including nuclear war.)

Current technology nuclear power is somewhere on that axis. If we paid anywhere near as much attention to the basic safety issues (not putting the plants near sea level, anyone?) for nuclear power as we do for aviation, we'd have a better idea of the true costs.

[1] Yes, that Richard Feynman.
[2] One-time event with about 10% of the annual "acceptable deaths" from automobiles in the USA.

Heather M. Rosa said...

I just heard an "Authority" talking with assurance that Chernobyl only killed 6 people. Well, yeah, the immediate explosion killed six. Then there are the hundreds of thousands who died more slowly from radiation poisoning and the clean-up. So what are the numbers?

That said, I'm not worrying about radiation hitting here from Japan like many others are. I've been exposed to the radiation from all the years of underground testing, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and what have you. It's too late to worry, in case there is an effect traceable to any or all of that exposure.

Not that I'm in a hurry to add more. I'll take the problems caused by hydrogen fuel cells, or wind and solar energy any day - if they ever figure out what they might be.

D. C. said...

That said, I'm not worrying about radiation hitting here from Japan like many others are.

Good on ya', Heather. I-131 (the main radioisotope released by reactors) accounts for about 3% of reaction products, and (as you might imagine from the atomic weight) isn't light -- it doesn't travel readily. Then there's the fact that it's reactive with water.

Now consider that up close to the plant it's possible to work for days without exceeding the occupational limits (and a mammogram is higher than that -- http://www.xkcd.com/radiation) close to the plant (for some value of "close.")

Now derate by 5000+ miles. Further derate by the I-131's half-life of 8 days.

It's one thing to be concerned about nuclear power as a policy issue, and another to freak out about something happening almost halfway around the world. A sense of proportion is appropriate.

Greg said...

The number of people who have died in, to name one place only, Nigeria while mining Uranium (there are no health precautions taken whatsoever) is not known. Therefore, that is not in the Nuke Numbers. Deaths associated with mining radioactive isotopes for bombs need to be considered (though I'm sure not counted outright) because a certain amount of MOX fuel is made from weapons material being 'discarded." Thousands of people who were children in the Chernobyl footprint had their thyroids removed (they had thyroid cancer). SOme died (though I'm not sure what the number is). IF a coal burner catches on fire a few people may(or may not) be killed or injured but the population of four or five neighboring countries generally does not suffer significantly elevated cancer risks.

But most important of all: Those of us who have been suspicious of nuclear energy as a safe and efficient fuel source have said from the beginning that it is the disposal of waste that is potentially the biggest problem. QE-f'ing-D in that regard.

George W. said...

Steph,
I'm a proponent of nuclear power as part of our long term energy plan. That said, I agree wholeheartedly with your sentiments in this post.
That there is an element of hysteria regarding nuclear power is a fact, that this means that all criticisms of nuclear power are a reflection of unreasonable concern is bad logic.
It is nice to see someone put some balance into the conversation; I'm tired of hearing that nuclear power is "perfectly safe" or an "imminent danger" as though those are the only reasonable positions.
Either of those positions is a recipe for bad policy, and the results will be disastrous regardless.

Stephanie Zvan said...

If we're going to decide to ride the tiger, we ought to know (1) that we're committed and (2) that we shouldn't be pretending we've got a house cat under us.

bw said...

I wrote the article about deaths per twh. Yes, 1.9 million deaths are from indoor air pollution a mix of coal, straw and wood. But I mostly took those out and left 1.2 million deaths from particulates for outdoor air pollution. Plus 10,000+ deaths from mining and transporting coal. Also coal has destroyed 7% of the Appalachian forests. Coal uses 1000 tons of explosive to blow up mountain tops. The mountaintop sludge is then held in a few square miles of sludge lakes. that is only 1/7th of the 7 billion tons of coal per year. 3 billion tons is mined in China.

Oil has over 2000+ occupational deaths from rig, pipeline and refinery accidents.

Wind power predates nuclear power. I guess you are talking about modern turbines versus what the Dutch and others had. Wind turbines uses ten times the steel and concrete per megawatt hour. Steel and concrete have environmental issues and safety. While not perfect nuclear, wind and solar are all ten to four thousand times better in all aspects than coal, oil, natural gas and biomass.

The inflated Chernobyl numbers are total crap. they are not consistent with the health studies that tracked survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or an incident in Taiwan where cobalt 60 get mixed in with rebar in a high rise apartment or the over 500 above ground nuclear weapons tests. The inflated numbers ignore that people in x-Soviet Union had the fall of the Soviet Union which ended anti-alcohol state programs which removed caps on controls of pre-existing drinking and smoking problems.

You would know the infrastructure issues around the US from the reports here. the report card also indicates risks of hydro and reservoir dams.

http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/fact-sheet/bridges

Stephanie Zvan said...

"Mostly" took those out, huh? The 1.2 million deaths from urban outdoor air pollution aren't coal deaths. They're the deaths from all urban air pollution, including transportation and industrial pollution. This is, again, part of why these numbers aren't comparable.

Yes, I am, as stated in the post, talking about industrial power production from wind, although we're already seeing more personal power production from wind as well. That's part of the reason you can knock off the false choice you present between nuclear energy and coal. The rest of the reason is included in the TNR article I linked. We're not facing an either/or situation. We're looking at an and/and situation plus some more on the side.

Now for the bridge. You know that the 35W bridge was listed in those "structurally deficient" statistics, do you not? Its rating indicated that it probably ought to be replaced. That replacement was scheduled for 13 years after the collapse. There were similar known deficiencies at Fukushima, which is why I used the bridge as an example of the corruption that we're overlooking when we trust simple statistics.