I was stunned to read that the German government has decided to shut down all its nuclear power plants in the wake of the Fukushima incident. Not surprised, because this kind of knee-jerk reaction is the kind of thing I expect of politicians, but appalled nonetheless. This is, in my opinion, the politics of superstition.
Why superstition? Superstition is basically a failure to understand probability, risk and causality. When a group of bad things happen, even it they have no causal link, our gut feel's inability to deal with randomness and probability - in that case the nature of clustering - means we look for someone to blame. Like a witch, or a phone mast. In the case of nuclear power stations we are dealing with something scary - radiation - which most of us don't understand and we go into full superstitious mode.
Let us just put this all into perspective. As I've mentioned before, radiation is a natural thing - the sort of thing the Soil Assocation is usually all in favour of. We are all exposed to radiation all the time. It's not a good idea to have levels increase, because there is a risk attached. But at the levels involved in the Fukushima incident we are talking a relatively small risk.
I'd like to compare nuclear power with another technology that we aren't scared of. The internal combustion engine. How many people have died so far as a result of the Fukushima incident? None, as far as I'm aware (as opposed to the many who died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami (not that common in Germany), but we seem to forget them). How many people are likely to die? The chances a handful may get cancer who wouldn't otherwise - and that's terrible. But it is a small risk. Now tell me. How many people worldwide die on the roads? Every time I see this figure I'm shocked. 1.25 million people a year. Yet somehow I don't think Germany is going to phase out cars and trucks by 2020.
Come on politicians. Risk exists. You have to start to understand it, and to explain it to people. Then, maybe, we can move away from the politics of superstition.
Image from Wikipedia