Nuclear Rationality March 20, 2011 | 08:24 pm

In the wake of Fukushima, an awful lot of irrationality has been going around about nuclear power. Some of it, I’ll grant, is on the anti-nuclear side of things. Especially with people thousands of miles away being terrified of radiation. But, at least from what I’ve seen, far more of it has been on the pro-nuclear side of the debate. I keep seeing the same fallacious arguments tossed around, the same straw man attacks, and I have to rebut them.

The first argument I’ve been seeing a lot lately can be summarized as “nothing happened at Fukushima, therefor nuclear power is perfectly safe.” By the logic, Russian Roulette is perfectly safe, too. I put the revolver to my temple, pull the trigger, and click- nothing happens. See? Perfectly safe. Bob does the same thing- and click. See? Still perfectly safe. Charlie, well, we don’t talk about Charlie. He was a special case, and not really applicable to whether Russian Roulette is safe or not. Humans are really really bad at figuring out the odds of rare events- we tend to either massively overestimate how likely they are (see terrorists attacks or airplane crashes) or assume they don’t happen at all (see stock market crashes).

In science as well as rationality, you have to take the misses into account, as well as the hits. You can’t tell me Russian Roulette is safe, because there’s Charlie with his brains splattered all over the far wall. Likewise, you can’t tell me nuclear disaster don’t happen, because there’s Chernobyl. You don’t get to ignore Chernobyl or down play it when talking about the costs of nuclear power. The odds of a major disaster are low (although increasing, with the increasing age of our nuclear power plants). But not zero. And the cost of a nuclear disaster is high, very high- huge tracts of land poisoned for decades, if not centuries, lives lost, cities having to be abandoned, and so on.

A close cousin to this fallacy is the statement that you get more radiation from eating a banana then you do living next to a nuclear reactor for a year. This statement is technically true- the median amount of radiation emitted by a nuclear reactor is so low it might as well be zero. It’s certainly less than that potassium and iodine rich banana. But again, this is ignoring the black swan events, those rare catastrophes.

“Coal and oil kill a lot more people, and do a lot more damage, then nuclear- so nuclear is a better bet.” I actually agree with this- global warming is a global catastrophe. Nuclear melt downs, by comparison, are local catastrophes. Had Fukushima melted down, this would have been a real problem for Japan- but the radiation would have affected California not at all. Global Warming is going to affect everyone.

So what? We need to get off coal and oil as well. You can argue that Russian Roulette with an automatic is a lot more dangerous than with a revolver, and be correct, but that still doesn’t make Russian Roulette with a revolver either safe or sane. If our choices were just nuclear vr.s fossil fuels, then I’d agree that nuclear is the best of a bad set of choices. But here’s the point- our choices are not limited to those two. Wind power is already cost-competitive with fossil fuels (ignoring the costs of global warming) and nuclear (ignoring the costs of melt downs), and solar is coming up fast. The nice thing about wind power is that when the earth quake, tsunami, and volcano all hit at the same time, the worst that can happen is the turbine falls over.

As a pre-rebuttal to the inevitable intermittency argument- you generate extra power when the wind is blowing (or the sun is shining) and store it (for example, by pumping water up hill). Then, when the wind isn’t blowing (enough), you tap into the stored power. So long as your average power generation is enough more than your average power demand to also pay for the loss due to storing the power, you’re fine. Yes, this increases the cost of wind- but not nearly as much as the cost of nuclear is increased by including the cost of melt downs.

“Pebble bed or thorium reactors are much safer.” I’m inclined to agree with this. So what? Our current nuclear power plants aren’t either of these. If you’re making this argument, you agree with me that our current nuclear reactors have to go, and we’re just debating on what to replace them with.

“We should take care not to over-react.” This one really gets my goat. What over-reaction is remotely likely to happen? We’re not just going to shut down all the nuclear power plants tomorrow, no matter what the hippies might like. The biggest reaction anyone is talking about is phasing nuclear power out over several years or decades and replacing it with something else. Which is almost the least we can do, short of nothing at all.

What the people who are saying this mean is that we shouldn’t react at all. We’re like Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, having to be careful not to learn any lessons from our mistakes- because then we might stop making them. Demonstrably, unless something like Fukushima or Three Mile Island forces the issue into the public debate, the issue doesn’t get debated, and lessons don’t get learned. If we don’t learn our lesson now, if the debate is not held now, if the reaction is not done now, it won’t be done- until the next near, or actual, disaster. When the chorus will start up again that we should not “over-react”, or indeed, react at all.

If you’re going to argue in favor of nuclear power, then do so- but do so honestly and rationally. Don’t ignore alternative power sources, don’t discount the possibility and cost of failures, and most of all don’t ask to postpone the debate indefinitely. And if you find that these strictures make it impossible to defend nuclear power, then what does that say?

  • Barry Kelly

    Coal isn’t worse than nuclear because of global warming – coal is actually more radioactive than nuclear!

    I think your post here is hopelessly naive, economically speaking. That wind power is cost competitive at current low rates of uptake says nothing about how economic it will be scaled up to replace coal and nuclear.

    Your post is also irrational, in that it takes absolutist positions against both nuclear and fossil fuels (framing them as Russian Roulette), but in reality everything is relative, and ideologues have no place in rational debate. The best is the enemy of the good; by throwing out everything in search of the best, you’ve abandoned all pretense at rationality.

  • Brian Hurt

    Comparing coal to nuclear- are we talking median averages, or mean averages? If the latter you have to include Chernobyl, which brings nuclear’s average up quite a bit. But coal is at the very least competitive, even looking at mean averages, with nuclear on radioactivity- coal is nasty, no doubt about it. Plus global warming, plus other pollutants, the only way coal is remotely cost-effective as an energy source is to ignore (externalize) all of these problems.

    Re: the scale up costs of wind. I find it hard to see what scale up issue there could be, aside from the intermittency issue, which I addressed. So this is just an appeal to unknown problems. “It won’t work because of problems no one knows about.”

    As for my post being irrational, you obviously missed the entire point. You can not ignore rare but disastrous consequences. That is a logical fallacy- and I demonstrate this by applying the logical fallacy to a different circumstance (Russian Roulette, in this case) in order to highlight the fallacy. I wasn’t making an absolute comparison, I was making an analogy to highlight a logical fallacy. And it’s more than a little bit disturbing that I have to spell this out for you.

    And- because you obviously either didn’t read or didn’t comprehend the article, the further point I was making was that once you take into account the rare but catastrophic consequences of nuclear power, the cost/benefit ratio of nuclear power shifts quite a bit. Especially in relationship to clean power sources like wind. This isn’t an absolute argument- it’s a relative argument- that, especially when you take all the costs into account, nuclear just isn’t worth it.

  • Dan

    The main thing that Nuclear has going for it is that it is safer in the case of a major accident than coal/oil/natural gas are in normal operation.

    This isn’t enough justification all by itself, but if one starts from the assumption that we need a certain amount of electricity to support our civilization, then to reject nuclear means coming up with alternatives that can practically deliver the same levels of energy at as least as good a safety threshold.

    Though really, I fail to see how “this is a serious accident, and there appears so far to be no actual harm” is a bad position. If the argument you are confronting is that nuclear is unsafe, then there should be some evidence of that lack of safety in the wake of the worst nuclear incident in decades.

  • Olwe

    The “techno-pop” group Kraftwerk is known for slavishly (tongue-in-cheek?) over-the-top devotion to technology. But they re-cast one of their hits, “Radioactivity” to be an anti-nuclear power song. In an interview, the reporter brought up this apparent cognitive dissonance. Ralf Hueter said (in so many words) that they love technology, but don’t like bad, half-baked technology. That when people have bad tech foisted on them they revolt. Hence, reacting badly en masse to bad or half-baked tech is not irrationalism, not just roused rabble. Nuclear power — as well as any number of other tech whiz-bangs — is half-baked, at best an “incomplete” technology. And of course safer technologies (wind and solar) are just waiting for the the bad stuff to go away.