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Nuclear catastrophe, risk awareness

| Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In the wake of the tragic earthquake and ensuing nuclear crisis in Japan, nuclear energy is returning to the forefront of the news as a hot topic for discussion. Many individuals and nations are re-thinking their stance on nuclear energy, taking the threat of nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant as a wake-up call to decrease future nuclear projects and increase security measures at existing nuclear facilities. For them, the nuclear accident has raised the question of whether or not nuclear reactors pose a significant threat to human health and safety.

But for me, the more important question is why we need such a dramatic wake-up call to take these risks seriously. My introductory economics classes taught me that people tend to be risk-adverse, but that of course assumes that people understand the risks they are taking. They seem to have glossed over the fact that people tend to be risk-oblivious as well. We assume that certain risks are so remote that they could never actually happen.

It is not the case that everyone was ignorant of the risks a major earthquake posed to Japanese nuclear reactors. In 2004, American geoscientist Leuren Moret made the eerie prediction that “It is not a question of whether or not a nuclear disaster will occur in Japan; it is a question of when it will occur.” (May 23, 2004, The Japan Times). However, despite such predictions and warnings, Japan continued to believe that nuclear meltdown would never happen there, and even built three additional nuclear reactors since 2004.

The Fukushima Daiichi facility was prepared to handle earthquakes, but not one on the scale of last week’s. The chances of an earthquake above a 7.9 magnitude seemed too remote to prepare for, but it happened; the recent earthquake was a 9.0. One might draw a parallel to New Orleans, where the city was prepared to handle hurricanes, but not one on the scale of Katrina. We live in a world where we’ve decided not to always prepare for the worst-case scenario, because we tell ourselves it’s such a remote possibility –– “That’ll never happen. Never in a million years.”

Today, the U.S. has 104 commercial nuclear reactors, the majority of which are in close proximity to population centers. To bring the discussion even closer to home, there is a commercial nuclear reactor outside Benton Harbor, Mich. –– just 26 miles away from South Bend. Currently, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission is recommending that citizens within 50 miles of the Fukushima Daiichi facility evacuate their homes.

A report issued last week by the Union of Concerned Scientists reveals 14 “near-misses” in U.S. nuclear plant safety in 2010 alone and warns “our luck at nuclear roulette may someday run out.” Then again, it may not. The odds are admittedly small. But the odds were small for Fukushima Daiichi, too. (The odds of a No. 10-seed and a No. 11-seed playing each other in the NCAA tournament were also remote, but we all know too well now that that’s possible too.)

But you know which energy sources have the smallest odds of causing massive human health catastrophes? Energy sources that don’t pose any inherent risks to human health, like wind and solar. Yes, there have been workplace accidents surrounding the construction of windmills.

But nothing about the wind or sunshine is by its nature damaging to the human person. Nuclear power generation, on the other hand, necessarily produces radioactive wastes which are harmful to human health, wastes that we have yet to figure out how to dispose of safely. Likewise, coal-fired power generation necessarily exposes workers and the general population to particulate and gaseous substances that are harmful to human health.

However, my ultimate goal here is not necessarily to convince you that the risks of nuclear outweigh its benefits (though it’s probably clear that that is my opinion). There are many considerations in the nuclear energy debate, which I cannot possibly hope to treat in a single column. So you may or may not be risk-adverse with regard to nuclear energy and that’s fine. But you should not be risk-oblivious. We should all take the time to understand the risks that we’re building into different aspects of the infrastructure of our society, whether it’s through our energy, food, or water.

Understand the amount of risk that industries and the government have decided is allowable, and if you’re not willing to accept that level of risk, do something to change it.

The GreenMan is an anonymous        eco-conscious observer of life at Notre Dame, providing environmental           commentary and advice to the campus community since 2010. Feel free to email your environmental living questions to the GreenMan at askthegreenman@gmail.com.