Counting the Cost of Nuclear ... and Road Traffic Accidents
Massive gulf oil spill. Answer: Find a way to blame BP.
1.2 million road deaths in 2010. Answer: Subsidize the auto industry. Don't dream of stopping driving.
One bad nuclear accident (impact unknown). Answer: Remove this evil from the face of the planet!
Why? Because nuclear accidents are rare enough we feel we can get upset about them and solve the problem by changing others, not changing ourselves.
We're hearing a lot about the Fukishima nuclear power station at the moment - a recent BBC headline reads "Japanese police say 15,000 people may have died in one prefecture alone, as efforts to tackle the Fukushima nuclear crisis go on." One could be forgiven for reading that and thinking that the nuclear crisis has killed 15,000 people. But as far as we know, it hasn't killed any yet.
First of all, the most important thing is the tsunami disaster and survivors. There is a lot you can do to help: one of the many responsible organizations accepting donations and organizing relief efforts is Mercy Corps.
Secondly, it's still way too early to say "mission accomplished" on the reactors. Another BBC article says that the incident has been raised to a "level 5" by the Japanese authorities. This puts in on a par with the other two level 5's in history, Windscale 1957 (eventually causing an estimated 120 deaths) and Three Mile Island, 1979 (eventually causing an estimated 0 deaths). So even if the worst radioactive emissions are over, the reactors can be cooled, and the situation brought under control, there may be long term illnesses and even some deaths caused by the incident. We will need to monitor carefully and learn - an obvious lesson being "don't put a nuclear power station near a well-known fault line". This lesson appears to have already been learned in most of the USA, according to a map made by Rhiza Labs. (We're not quite sure why there are a couple in California, that doesn't seem too smart, and apparently one in Humboldt County, CA, was closed in the ’70s precisely because of seismic activity.) Europe (Northern Europe particularly) has a lot less earthquake activity in general.
Thirdly, and my main point: in spite of there being no confirmed deaths, there is a chorus of voices (including many good friends of mine) saying that enough is enough, we should altogether get rid of nuclear power. Enough of what? Enough injury and death and suffering caused by nuclear power?
Let's compare with road traffic accidents. According the the World Health Organization:
"Worldwide, an estimated 1.2 million people are killed in road crashes each year and as many as 50 million are injured. Projections indicate that these figures will increase by about 65% over the next 20 years unless there is new commitment to prevention."
So every single year, 10,000 people die in road traffic accidents for every person killed as a result of the Windscale fire, which (according to the rankings) is a comparable incident to the Fukushima incident. To put in in context: I remember watching an hour's documentary about Windscale. To devote a similar attention-span-per-fatality to road traffic accidents in 2010 alone, I would have to spend 10,000 hours, which is over 1 year, watching documentaries about the accidents and the people killed.
An obvious question is "Hang on, what about Chernobyl?". Estimates for eventual fatalities from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 are hard to verify, ranging from about 100 to about 1 million, with a figure of 4,000 quoted in between. The 4,000 figure is disputed as too small by anti-nuclear and too big by pro-nuclear commentators. (This is a good example of how, most of the time, we don't weigh the evidence and choose our position accordingly, we choose our position first and then weigh the evidence accordingly.) If 4,000 is the correct number, then 300 people died in road accidents in 2010 alone for every person killed in the worst nuclear accident ever. Also, much has been learned from Chernobyl, and given the sort of funding required and precautions taken for each nuclear power station today, a incident from the declining nearly-bankrupt years of the USSR is not a typical case.
If we are so less likely to die of nuclear fallout than we are in road traffic accidents, why are people so eager to ban nuclear? I think the answer is not that we're really threatened, but quite the opposite. We're not really threatened. Nothing really bad has happened in quarter of a century. So when something bad might happen it makes it very easy to get hot under the collar, to get really worried about how terrible this is, because it's so unusual, and the unusual is newsworthy. And we could get rid of nuclear and feel much better about ourselves and how much we've done for the planet, without actually impacting our lives very much either way. Sure, there'd be more pressure on natural resources, the pro-drilling lobby would be thrilled, and we'd see some price rises in electricity. Perhaps we'd see more investment in renewables. But we wouldn't really have to behave differently on a day to day level, would we?
And the moral upside of getting rid of nuclear would feel huge. As Greenpeace puts it in describing the Chernobyl museum:
"These powerful images are a timely reminder that human lives are more than just numbers. For each statistic there is a person paying the ultimate price. Anyone who doubts the dangers of nuclear power should visit the exhibition and see for themselves one of the reasons why we oppose nuclear power. Twenty years on, every nuclear power plant bears the legacy of the nuclear industry's victims; and every nuclear power plant represents the threat of becoming the next Chernobyl."
Powerful stuff. So what if we replaced a suspected 4,000 deaths with a confirmed 1.2 million, and said "every new motor car bears the legacy of the auto industry's victims"? Ban cars now?