This post is mainly a Review of Dr Daniel A. Vogel’s essay “Nuclear Power and the Psychology of Evaluating Risk” in The Skeptical Inquirer, Nov-Dec 2016, pages 56 and following.
“Could it be that opponents of nuclear energy contribute to worsening global warming by failing to evaluate its risk rationally?”, the editors’ “teaser” modestly asks.
Well yes, of course that might be so, and one hopes they think hard about that possibility.
It’s a well-worn line of course, but The Skeptical Inquirer is a reputable magazine, and Dr Vogel, a clinical psychologist, is something of a heavy hitter. Much of the pro-nuclear material one finds on line and even in print is self-interested pleading from the nuclear industry, sometimes recycled by enthusiastic engineers who can’t understand why there are so many restraints on this exciting technology. Vogel is much more cautious. He concedes that nuclear accidents happen.
But he calculates that the Chernobyl explosion in 1986 (the worst accident to date if Fukushima can be kept under control) killed just 28 workers outright, though he concedes that more than 100 others developed radiation injuries, and that many other cancers were probably radiation-related.
Yet he pleads for recognition that all forms of energy production cost human lives, as do other essential activities. In the USA alone in 2014, he says, 181 persons died in mining, 874 in construction, and in 2013 some 4,735 died just “crossing the road”, while over 35,000 Americans died in car crashes in 2015. The likely fatalities from climate change, one way or another, may be vastly more.
So why not encourage rather than discourage the use of nuclear power? After all, in general the amount of fossil fuel used up when we mine and process uranium and build and later close down nuclear power plants seems to be significantly less than when we make power “directly” from fossil fuels.
So far, so well worn. But Vogel sets it out modestly, and cogently.
Next, assuming that he has now effectively dismissed the anti-nuclear argument, he asks: what produces such irrational resistance to this least-worst source of power? He suggests the problem is (a) group-thinking by most environmentalists, plus (b) a tendency to over-emphasize the few spectacular nuclear accidents, rather than “the benefits of all those times when nuclear energy plants worked well”. He says that France gets 17% of its energy from nuclear, and claims that this has been without serious problems.
He modestly suggests that “humans would more closely approach the truth by allowing their judgements to be informed by statistics”—especially when balancing the dangers from nuclear power against those from other sources. Just as dramatic plane-crashes blind us to the statistical truth that flying is safer than driving, so, he suggests, we mis-read the risks of nuclear energy.
From there, it is a short step to suggesting that those who disagree with him have been blinded by ideology. On this, he produces the perfect quotation (from President Clinton): “The problem with any ideology is that it gives you the answer before you look at the evidence.” So far, so good.
Further, he implies, our handling of nuclear energy, as of railroad construction, is bound to improve. “Anti-nuclear activists are surely not planning to boycott trains because thousands of Irish and Chinese lost their lives laying down their tracks in the united States in the 1860s, far more than died in the Chernobyl disaster . . .”—at which point, certain gaps become evident in Vogel’s argument.
But he moves into his peroration. Whether driving cars or taking medicines with known side-effects, “There are risks millions of us take every day that vastly surpass that of operating Chernobyl and Fukushima on their worst days.”
But that is precisely the hole in Vogel’s argument. We do not yet know what a worst day, a worst scenario, might be for a nuclear power plant. Even the worst disasters so far have been ones that, in the end, have proved just possible to (at least partially) control and manage. We have not yet seen a full-scale melt down. We have not yet seen a nuclear power plant in the hands of suicidal terrorists, or a psychotic individual.
We have also not yet seen an all-out war between evenly matched nations who target each other’s nuclear power stations with missiles. (Imagine if Europe had had nuclear power before World War II. Do you think Churchill or Hitler would have hesitated to bomb their opponent’s power stations? Europe might now be uninhabitable for centuries. Whereas instead, Europe’s bombed out power stations were re-built within a couple of years of WWII ending, and Europe bloomed, and boomed, again.)
Vogel’s article is perfectly tailored to The Skeptical Inquirer, a magazine that collects examples of human credulity. There is a real danger that his article may be a hit there, and spread the myth that to worry about nuclear dangers is a form of human irrationality. In fact he has demonstrated no such thing. His point about our tendency to attend to spectacular disasters rather than to average rates of death is of course well taken, though far from new.
And yes, it is true that, on a business as usual basis, the pursuit of non-nuclear energy brings more deaths per year than nuclear does—at least in an typical year. Those 181 persons who died in mines in the US in a single year, no doubt some of them in oil and coal mines, is an appalling cost. But it is not a number that might blow out one year to 1000 lives or 10,000 lives, or 100,000 lives, or a million lives.
That is where nuclear is different. That is why it is an utter fallacy to think you can measure the dangerousness of the two technologies by comparing current annual death rates—a massive fallacy, which Vogel might have named the “statistical fallacy”, but which in fact he does not name or discuss.
The same applies, of course, to the environmental costs. A hydro-electric dam that collapses, or a coal-fired power station that burns down or gets bombed is an environmental disaster for a couple of years; but a nuclear plant that gets bombed may make a country uninhabitable forever (at least as we humans count forever). The risks are not comparable. They cannot be compared by counting current annual statistics.
You see, Vogel has oddly failed to notice a much more important (and very relevant) form of human irrationality: stasis bias. That is, the failure to imagine that the world can change fundamentally: a failure to understand that if you go on running a small annual risk, but a real and increasing one, of utter catastrophe, that risk builds up over time to near certainty.
Sure the risk of any individual nuclear power station having a major melt-down this year is small; but over the years and with the ever-increasing number of stations Vogel would advocate, it approaches certainty.
It is not as if we haven’t been warned. If you read the Wikipedia page on Fukushima and follow up the obvious references you will discover how very dangerous that melt-down was (and in part still is). It seems the Japanese government was advised that they should evacuate Tokyo, but never gave the order for it, because there is no existing plan, and in fact no practical method, to evacuate that vast, vast city.
Worse, there was in the early days a small but very real chance of an explosion whose wind-blown fallout would make not just all Japan but much or most of the Northern hemisphere uninhabitable. No need to spell out what that might have done to our world! (Including Southern-hemisphere countries, and their environments, faced with a tsunami of refugees.)
Dr Vogel’s remarks about environmentalists are patronising, and undeserved. So far from deserving blame for their inability to understand environmental dangers, they are almost the only people who do properly understand that incremental changes, such as global warming, population increase, or proliferation of nuclear stations, eventually produce seemingly sudden... melt-downs.
We environmentalists spend much of our time trying to get through to complacent numbskulls that what they think are minor problems, such as the steady increase of human numbers or the steady disappearance of the natural world, or the steady loss of soil, will eventually produce sudden famines, droughts, and other disasters.
For a long time an ice-floe (with or without an iconic polar bear on top) simply thins in the warming waters, while pundits opine that this will go on forever, or can’t be wrong because it is good for the economy, or is “cyclical”; then comes the day when it flips. But try telling that to someone whose stasis bias is built on the fact that they are making a nice financial “killing” out of destroying the natural world!
Sad indeed that Dr Vogel didn’t think to talk about stasis bias as a (or the) major fallacy that the nuclear debate illustrates!
Once one has noticed that huge omission in his thinking, it becomes easy to note the other signs of bias in his essay. He has clearly been taking his facts too much from one side of the debate. For instance he claims French nuclear plants have run smoothly. He was not to know, at time of publication, that there would be a massive explosion at the Flamanville nuclear plant in February 2017, but he should have been aware of previous French incidents. (Wikipedia lists 12.)
He assures us that there is clear scientific evidence that “nuclear power is, on average, extremely safe, environmentally clean, and plays virtually no role in heating up our planet.” Vogel justifies this claim by citing an optimistic 2003 article in Scientific American “How Nuclear Power can stop Global Warming” by David Biello, but fails to note the detailed replies that have since been published, such as this 2015 one by Jim Green in Nuclear Monitor, which begins:
1. Nuclear Power is Not a Silver Bullet : Nuclear power could at most make a modest contribution to climate change abatement. The main limitation is that it is used almost exclusively for electricity generation, which accounts for less than 25% of global greenhouse emissions. Even tripling nuclear power generation would reduce emissions by less than 10% − and then only if the assumption is that it displaces coal. . . .
Vogel does not consider the close links between civil and military use of nuclear facilities. He also does not stop to consider that, in the words of the former leader of the Australian Democrats Party, John Coulter:
In the real world nuclear power is being run by private companies whose motive is profit, not safety. An examination of Fukushima shows that right from its planning to its operation and to its clean-up efforts corners have been cut which have helped precipitate the accident, hindered its resolution and blocked essential elements in the so-called clean-up.
Vogel also recycles uncritical claims about “the integral fast reactor” which is supposed to be free of the problems of other types of reactors, but which has not lived up to its hype and which the USA has cancelled. There has been much other bad news about reactors that he ignores.
To cite just one at random, on 21 December 2106, BBC News covered the story Japan cancels failed $9bn Monju nuclear reactor, remarking “Japan is scrapping an experimental reactor which has worked for just 250 days of its 22-year lifespan and cost $9bn.” Yet Vogel wraps himself in a cloak of science, claiming that “the Left/liberal wing tends to deny the very science of atomic energy, as it tends at times to do in other areas such as vaccines .”
And he ends with a claim that “Psychological science can assist such hard sciences” by providing analyses like his. His own analysis does seem to me intelligent, sincere, and genuinely thoughtful, yet , alas, in the end not scientific, nor even particularly logical —being too much influenced by our common human tendency, which Clinton described, to assume an answer before examining all the evidence.