Monday, 30 May 2011

The politics of superstition

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

2 comments:

  1. You show a wonderful sense of proportion yet again. The internal combustion engine is possibly one of our greatest avoidable health threats, yet I will still go out tomorrow in one and worry about the radon levels in my home if I don't open windows!

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  2. On one hand, yes, I agree - we shouldn't have these knee jerk reactions to events like Fukushima, on the other hand - there is something slightly cavalier about 'accepting' a 'handful' of deaths as a result of such an accident. Any death should be unnecessary as it certainly would be were Fukushima a solar facility or wind turbines (haven't heard of any 'catastrophic events' or deaths to civilians as a result of such damage - and no lingering worries of fallout).

    We don't associate traffic accidents with 'catastrophic events' (even though they certainly are for people involved in them) because they are, ultimately an individual's risk (you choose to drive or be driven), not a risk that is foisted upon us by governments and energy companies seeking profit. If the people were better informed, it would not be about 'risk' (I trust adults to understand this anyway) it would be about the options they have in obtaining their energy (solar, wind, water) that are inherently safer than nuclear facilities (and, on an aesthetic level, far more pleasant-looking and, therefore, capable of inspiring a more positive outlook - never underestimate the power of the image).

    There are and will be deaths associated with Fukushima - the most horrible being the poor employees of the plant who worked to contain the damage. How many people can say they go to work in a place where they might lose their life because of a business decision (to place the plant on a fault line)? Yes, there are always risks. How many of them are necessary?

    If you've ever spent time with someone dying of cancer (I have), especially a young person with children of their own, children who will never know their parents, you cannot underestimate what a nightmare it is - especially when the cancer need never have happened.

    When we start accepting that collateral damage is simply a way of life, we've lost something. It is the same acceptance for unjust wars and corrupt politicians. We can be - and should be - better than this.

    PS: apologies for being 'anonymous' - I tried posting this response several times and only 'Anonymous' option worked!

    - Simon Porter, London, Ontario

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