Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Nuclear Accidents

Just read an interesting article by Ed Grabianowski on io9 about nuclear accidents and near-disasters. Couple of quotes:

We spent the Cold War in perpetual fear that the U.S. and U.S.S.R. would start an intentional nuclear conflict. The truth is, we came far closer to blowing ourselves up with nuclear weapons than we ever came to WWIII.... The Russians either lost a nuclear sub, lost a sub with nuclear weapons on board, had a nuclear sub's reactor melt down, or all three roughly every other week.... The sad lesson is that we have less to fear from naked aggression than we do from incompetence and bad engineering.

I don't mean to diminish the danger of nuclear accidents, and certainly there was a learning curve involved here - a very dangerous learning curve (it's notable that all the incidents listed occurred between 1950 and 1979, and all the ones in which radiation was released occurred before 1966). But Grabianowski betrays his own politics with some of these claims. How can he know we came "closer to blowing ourselves up than to WWIII"? There were several incidents that came close to sparking WWIII, too - which was "closer"?

It's tempting to think that, as close as some of these engineering mishaps were, they actually weren't as close as the author thinks. Grabianowski himself points out that the Russians had accidents all the time that never had the dire consequences he imagines (other than Chernobyl). That strikes me as evidence that nuclear engineering is not as prone to actual disaster scenarios as the author thinks.

Grabianowski's closing quote, that we have less to fear from aggression than from incompetence, is utter nonsense. Even restricting our historical view just to nuclear weaponry, it's hard to ignore the fact that far more people have been killed by atomic weapons than by atomic accidents. In fact, it's possible that more people were killed on 9/11 than by Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in history. (Wikipedia says: "It is estimated that there will ultimately be a total of 4,000 deaths attributable to the accident, due to increased cancer risk." But these estimates are notoriously unreliable, and impossible to prove. In any case, the numbers are comparable.) The twentieth century witnessed hundreds of millions die as a result of naked aggression, and two or three orders of magnitude less due to engineering mishaps.

The numerical comparison demonstrates the absurdity of the claim. But the philosophy behind it is also wrongheaded. Does Grabianowski believe that our military is more dangerous in peacetime than it is valuable in wartime? Having a nuclear-armed military runs the risk of accident. Building and operating nuclear power plants runs similar risks. But in both cases, there is significant return on this investment. In the field of nuclear technology, it is much easier to imagine disaster scenarios than to actually find them.

We should be cautious, but not allow our caution to stop us moving at all. Doing nothing, or worse, doing the wrong things, also runs risks. Suppose the Global Warming people are right. Then we should be building nuclear plants at breakneck speed. The risk of accident should be overwhelmed by the risk (according to the most dire claims of the Warmingists) of warming. But in many cases those very environmentalists block nuclear power, preferring pie-in-the-sky plans involving solar or wind power. The result is what no one wants: ever greater dependency on fossil fuels.

Grabianowski probably was not thinking all of these things when he wrote the article. I have no reason to believe that he is a nuclear-power-protesting environmentalist. Nonetheless, his article feeds a nucleophobia that we as a society must learn to get over.

1 comment:

  1. He's just trying to create a rationale for his inherent but irrational belief that we should get rid of all nuclear weapons. By claiming that the risk is greater than the risk of aggression, he "proves" that we shouldn't have nukes.

    It's the same ridiculous argument that liberals use to try to take away our right to own guns: guns are dangerous, they say, and you are more likely to shoot yourself than a criminal. Perhaps the average liberal is that incompetent, but the rest of us might be a bit more capable and responsible.