The Technium

Passing a Worst-Case Scenario Test

Our human brains are not natively wired to assess risk and probabilities. We have to try hard to calculate these slippery factors, but we should try hard. Managing the technium requires managing risks.

The 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami caused great damage to all energy and infrastructure systems.

One irrigation dam ruptured, its flood killing at least four people. Six other dams show signs of cracking.

Two oil refineries was set on fire by the quake, one in Ichihara and one in Sendai. Others were taken offline to check for damage.

Four nuclear power reactors were damaged. No deaths due to radiation have been reported so far.

The failure of a dam and its cost of life have not caused second thoughts about the risks and appropriate use of hydroelectricity. The failure of oil refineries have no elicited second thoughts about power from oil. But the failure of nuclear reactors have caused great anguish and second thoughts about nuclear power, despite its comparable harm.

Nuclear power has real and known risks. Coal has real and known risks. Solar and wind have real and less known risks. The risks of one option have to be weighed, not against nothing, but against the risks of other options. Nuclear is looking pretty good.

“Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power,” says George Monbiot in the UK’s liberal paper Guardian.

OK, that congratulations of passing the test may yet be a bit premature, but nuclear would have to kill a lot more to catch up to coal. Unfortunately, even smart people are running from nuclear and plunging back into coal and oil as the only other immediately available economic alternative. Mark Lynas notes, “Having shut down its nukes, Germany is already importing much more coal from the US and other countries, as is Japan.”

Richard Rhodes one of the foremost experts on nuclear weapons, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the effects of atom bomb and nuclear weapons, now in its fourth volume. He notes a curious effect of this re-evaluation of nuclear power:

All Energy Disasters Lead to Coal, Which Is an Energy Disaster

Simply looking at the loss of human life day to day, coal and oil are a disaster.

As per this Swedish report on the health effects of power generation. When tallied as deaths per tera watts per hour (deaths/TWh) coal and oil dominate while nuclear is minimal:

Death watt

But what about black swan events? Say a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami on the cost demolishing some old nuclear reactors? Might nuclear radiation be so severe that it would wipe off life from the planet, or at least fry thousands, and eliminate its considerable lead in saftey? It is possible, but not likely.

For a better understanding of the relative strength of radiation and its health consequences, this “powers of ten” radiation chart by xkcd is very illuminating.  Everyone might want to stop getting x-rays. But we won’t because we reckon the costs of not getting x-rays.


What technology wants is a diversity of energy sources. Having passed a harsh worst-case scenario test, nuclear will be part of that mix.



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