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Fukushima and our inability to gauge risk

Map of Japan with nuclear power plantsPerhaps the most important energy story on the planet right now is the precarious situation for fuel rods stored in a damaged building at the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan, site of the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history.

It's a story that has actually been important for a while because an earthquake--in a place prone to earthquakes--or a severe storm or perhaps another tsunami have the potential to dislodge these rods, expose them to air and begin a reaction that might release a radioactive cloud that would reach around the globe. Figuring out how to get the rods out of harm's way, however, has proven exceedingly difficult. But shortly, the plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power Company, is going to try, and any mistake in moving the rods could be very, very environmentally damaging and dangerous to human health.

However, there is another story beyond the immediate danger that tells us something about how we think about risk and why such thinking is wholly inadequate to the risks we face in energy. Up until the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine in 1986, nuclear advocates liked to say that no one had ever been killed by nuclear power. After Chernobyl that changed to very few people have ever been killed by nuclear power compared to the numbers killed, for example, in coal mining. And, of course, there is the damage done to human, animal and plant health by emissions from coal burning including respiratory disease, mercury contamination of fish and the degradation of forests due to acid rain. There is also climate change caused by emissions from burning not only coal, but other fossil fuels as well.

After Fukushima, even though nuclear advocates could still plausibly defend the same general claims about nuclear safety, they seldom do. Part of the reason is that we don't know the final toll of the Fukushima disaster because the disaster is still in progress and is likely to remain in progress for many years, if not decades. And, because there is so much more at the site to deal with, that time line holds even if the fuel rods are successfully extracted from the rubble of the building that currently houses them.

How could the world have misjudged the dangers associated with nuclear power, especially those from the light water reactors that so dominate the nuclear industry today? The simple answer is lack of experience. The nuclear power industry is only approaching 70 years old. That seems like a long time, but it isn't.

Nuclear power plants are one of the most complex systems ever devised by humans. Complex systems by their very nature have more failure points than simple systems. But this in and of itself is not the problem. Natural systems such as the ocean currents or a rainforest are exceedingly complex. But, they have been around for much longer and their processes have settled into much more predictable patterns. With nuclear power plants, we have little experience to go on in evaluating risks.

Man-made systems not only have much shorter histories to work from, but they can interact with natural systems in unpredictable ways. Recall what happened at the Fukushima nuclear plant: The tsunami was so high that it breached the plant's seawall, flooding emergency diesel generators located in basements, generators that were supposed to power pumps to cool the reactor core and fuel rods in the event of a power outage. Backup batteries for those pumps ran out of power within a day. And, that's when the trouble began that led to hydrogen explosions which damaged buildings--damage that ultimately compromised the fuel rod storage.

Let me quote from an earlier piece of mine, "Calculating calamity: Japan's nuclear accident and the 'antifragile' alternative":

Famed student of risk and probability and author of The Black Swan Nassim Nicholas Taleb tells us that in 2003 Japan's nuclear safety agency set as a goal that fatalities resulting from radiation exposure to civilians living near any nuclear installation in Japan should be no more than one every million years. Eight years after that goal was adopted, it looks like it will be exceeded and perhaps by quite a bit, especially now that radiation is showing up in food and water near the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. (Keep in mind that "fatalities" refers not just to immediate deaths but also to excess cancer deaths due to radiation exposure which can take years and even decades to show up.)
Taleb writes that it is irresponsible to ask people to rely on the calculation of small probabilities for man-made systems since these probabilities are almost impossible to calculate with any accuracy. (To read his reasoning, see entry 142 on the notebook section of his website entitled "Time to understand a few facts about small probabilities [criminal stupidity of statistical science].") ....Calculations for man-made systems that result in incidents occurring every million years should be dismissed on their face as useless.
Furthermore, he notes, models used to calculate such risk tend to underestimate small probabilities. What's worse, the consequences are almost always wildly underestimated as well.

We could conclude that nuclear power is unsafe or, at least, risky enough that we don't want to build more potential Fukushimas, and leave it at that. But, we would be remiss in not noting that the rest of the world's energy system, based primarily on fossil fuels faces risks of unknown proportions as well.

There are the obvious risks of climate change associated with the burning of fossil fuels. The risks are rising, and the consequences could be nothing short of catastrophic.

With regard to supply, despite all the handwaving about ample supplies of fossil fuels, an oil price hovering in record territory for the last three years tell us that limits for this fuel cannot be far off. The rate of production has barely nudged upward, just 2.7 percent since 2005 despite record investment by the oil industry. This compares with a nearly 10 percent rise in the production rate in the previous eight years. It's a significant slowdown, made all the more significant because it comes in the face of supposedly miraculous new extractive technologies that were supposed to reverse the declining growth trend in world oil supplies.

Natural gas production in the United States--still (almost certainly wrongly) touted as the world's next natural gas superpower--has been just about flat since the beginning of 2012. Coal supplies seem ample, but coal quality is declining virtually everywhere, and estimates of minable coal have actually been dropping for decades.

We think we know the future of these fuels. But only a decade ago, the same people who are trumpeting fossil fuel abundance today were telling us how prices would stay low for decades and supply would keep on increasing at a steady pace. For example, long-term forecasts for oil production made in the year 2000 were far too optimistic. In fact, the optimists have been wrong every step of the way as oil's price has increased 10-fold since 1998.

Coal prices leapt upward in the last decade though they have come down from their peaks. World natural gas prices remain high, though a local glut in the United States has lowered prices there--but only to levels that remain 70 percent higher than the average price in the 1990s. Why should we accept optimistic pronouncements about supply now?

We shouldn't because the perennial optimists don't know the future, and neither does anyone else. And, that should tell us right there that we cannot gauge the risks to fossil fuel supplies with any degree of certainty. Projections and forecasts that go out decades are guesses and little more. They have no force as probabilistic predictions because the probabilities of such forecasts cannot be calculated. And yet, most are presented as fact rather than the fiction that they are.

The fact is, we don't know what we don't know. In our energy policy and planning across the world, we act as if we know future fossil fuel supplies precisely--just as we acted as if we knew the risks of nuclear power rather precisely--that is, close to zero.

All this suggests that we ought to have a bias toward energy supplies that cannot decline in the long run, namely renewables--and that cannot create environmental havoc with just one accident. Strangely, this is a surprisingly tough sell in a world that has already been sold on the idea that we have precise knowledge of our energy future--when, in reality, all we have are risks, many of which cannot be even be remotely quantified.

Map of Japan and nuclear power plants is from Wikimedia Commons (source US Govt).

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