March 21, 2011

The Nuclear Scarecrow

Article first published as The Nuclear Scarecrow on Technorati.

The events of this past week in Japan have predictably resurrected the dormant nuclear scarecrow. The usual arguments are being trotted about how nuclear power generation is an off-the-charts risky enterprise. It’s time therefore to slay the scarecrow again.
Gun ownership in the United States is a peculiar left over from the 17th century and earlier. It serves no useful purpose. Yet the number of fatalities from gun-related causes is of the order of 100 per day. The number of non-fatal injuries is clearly twice or thrice as many. Yet gun ownership prospers.
Thousands of coal miners die every year. Tuberculosis and malaria account for some three million deaths every year. Malnutrition and diarrhea account for millions more deaths every year. The oil and gas industry sees thousands of deaths from accidents every year. Road accidents lead to hundreds of fatalities around the world everyday. Actually, about 300 die in road accidents everyday in India.
Keeping all this in mind, it’s clear that nuclear power plants do not represent a frontline clear and present danger in any logical sense. They are very much a potential danger though.
But the potential danger posed by power plants is probably largely misunderstood. The real danger of course arises from the possibility that radioactivity may leak into the atmosphere or water bodies ultimately affecting millions of people. But nobody can show a plausible mechanism as to how this worst case scenario might actually come to pass if the already stringent safety standards are followed in designing, building and operating these nuclear power plants.
Japan faced a rare double whammy of a severe earthquake combined with a massive tsunami and yet the result so far is that we are faced with a catastrophe but still with a fighting chance to avert the worst.
Contrast this with the rest. In all the focus on Fukushima, the thousands of dead have been forgotten.
And above all, this was Japan after all. Not a factor to be taken lightly. Japan is clearly the world’s best prepared country when it comes to earthquakes. If an earthquake of similar magnitude had occurred elsewhere, the death toll would have been 100 times worse.
Natural disasters unfortunately have become commonplace and we have become desensitized to the resulting human toll to a great extent. How many of us remember the Pakistan floods, the Pakistan earthquake, the Chilean earthquake, the Haitian earthquake, the supercyclone in Orissa? Katrina and the Asian tsunami are seared into our memories — but they do not constitute the only natural disasters of the past decade.
Whereas building codes and other such factors are naturally local, the standards to which a nuclear power plant is built are mostly global. So, while earthquakes and tsunamis in poor nations of the world will continue to result in thousands of fatalities as a matter of routine, one can say with a great deal of certainty that it’s difficult to imagine an accident related to a nuclear power plant that will result in similar number of fatalities.
It’s good that there’s so much focus on Fukushima. That will ensure that lessons will be learnt and the world will be wiser to the overt and covert dangers. But let’s not be hallucinated. We are not talking about the accidental explosion of a 50-megaton H-bomb.
Look at it this way: no matter how safe you can make airplanes, every time 400 people fly in a single plane, there’s a chance that 400 people could die in a single disaster. Indeed, disasters have happened in the air. But we have not stopped flying. We merely investigate the causes and make flying ever safer.
And we build bigger planes than ever before.

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