It has been pointed out by many people, including on this blog by Sacha (quoting James Lovecock), that nuclear is much safer than pretty much any source of power for electricity. The relevant comparison was that per Terawatt-year of electricity generated there are 342 deaths for coal, 885 deaths for Hydro, 85 deaths from Natural Gas and only 8 for Nuclear. This comparison appears to be using a low figure for the Chernobyl accident as the WHO finds around double that number of deaths directly to the Chernobyl accident, but even so that brings the total to 16 per TWy, still well less than the next most safe method, Natural Gas. Hydro rates poorly due to some severe accidents with dams bursting in India that have killed in the thousands each.
Death of course is not the only risk associated with nuclear. Thousands more have had thyroid cancer directly as a result of Chernobyl although most have been treated and over 99% have recovered it is still a cost to bear. Then there is the contamination of land and the wholesale abandonment of the surrounding area. Also this is not to mention that we don’t really have much historical data to base our estimate of how bad or how frequent a meltdown can be. Still if we look at the total historical human costs and average over all the power that has successfully been generated by nuclear the human cost still comes out as being low, certainly lower than coal power.
If that is the case then isn’t it rational that we should adopt nuclear on the basis of safety? What that kind of comparison misses out is that people regard riskier situations as different to less risky situations for similar expectations. Thus although most nuclear power plants will sit there quite happily not hurting anyone, the rare one that does is potentially extremely hazardous. It is reasonable to treat this volatile outcome as much more serious than the equivalent. We do after all routinely pay away money to insurance companies when we would be better, on an expected outcome basis, to save the money ourselves.
If we believe that nuclear is not just a bit safer (in terms of deaths) than other forms of electricity but significantly safer, then surely this is enough to outweigh our risk aversion? I would say yes, but I could quite easily understand others coming to the no conclusion as well even if they were fairly well informed of the facts and the true risks.
That said I believe it is clear that many people over estimate the risk of nuclear compared with other risks that they don’t even consider or take for granted. On the other hand its also seductively easy to look at nuclear power’s track record in the west and do the reverse. It’s easy to believe there are no black swans if you’ve never seen one. We know catastrophic accidents are rare, but have we been lucky or unlucky seeing as few as we have seen?