Is Nuclear Power Worth the Risk?

One of the interesting features during the Fukushima reactor crisis were the fistfights that broke out in comments between the defenders of nuclear power and the opponents. The boosters argued that the worst case scenario problems were overblown, both in terms of estimation of the odds of occurrence and the likely consequences. The critics contended that nuclear power was not economical ex massive subsidies, that there was no “safe” method of waste disposal, and that nuclear plants were always subject to corners-cutting, both in design and operation, so the ongoing hazards were greater than they appeared.

Reader Crocodile Chuck passed along a story from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “The Lessons of Fukushima“, by anthropologist Hugh Gusterson. Here is the key section:

And presumably there are other complicated technological scenarios that we have not foreseen, earthquake faults that are undetected or underestimated, and terrorists hatching plans for mayhem as yet unknown. Not to mention regulators who place too much trust in those they regulate.

Thus it is hard to resist the conclusion reached by sociologist Charles Perrow in his book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies: Nuclear reactors are such inherently complex, tightly coupled systems that, in rare, emergency situations, cascading interactions will unfold very rapidly in such a way that human operators will be unable to predict and master them. To this anthropologist, then, the lesson of Fukushima is not that we now know what we need to know to design the perfectly safe reactor, but that the perfectly safe reactor is always just around the corner. It is technoscientific hubris to think otherwise.

This leaves us with a choice between walking back from a technology that we decide is too dangerous or normalizing the risks of nuclear energy and accepting that an occasional Fukushima is the price we have to pay for a world with less carbon dioxide. It is wishful thinking to believe there is a third choice of nuclear energy without nuclear accidents.

Readers will correctly argue that other energy sources have considerable human and environmental costs. Coal fired electrical plants are major CO2 emitters, and the older ones also spew a lot of particulates. Many communities in the US are fighting fracking out of well warranted concerns about the damage it might do to underground water supplies. Others readers have contended that we need to get over our growth addiction and start adapting to less energy intensive lifestyles (which if we were really serious about it, means much more urbanization in the US).

Is nuclear power worth the risk? And if you argue against it, what energy/economic strategy do you recommend in its place?


Originally published at naked capitalism and reproduced here with permission.

One Response to "Is Nuclear Power Worth the Risk?"

  1. Guest   March 25, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    In fact, the particular choice of the water cooled (by electrical pumps) reactor, whether pressurized or boiling, over other reactor designs which are passively stable, in addition to other advantages; and the adherence to that choice over the years in the face of all evidence that it is less than optimal, is enough to condemn the nuclear power industry. To answer the headline, if an equivalent quantity of nuclear power can be generated with less risk (both direct and indirect in the form of generating weapons grade fuel, etc.) and at lower monetary cost, how can the current generation of nuclear power possibly be worth the risk?