Alan Kolaczkowski, a retired nuclear engineer, consulted with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on specific probabilities of accidents at nuclear plants. He estimates the risk of a disaster at a given plant at 1 in 100,000 _ about the same as your chance of being killed by lightning over your lifetime. For comparison, an American’s odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 88; being shot to death, 1 in 306; and dying from bee stings, 1 in 71,623, according to the National Safety Council. The council couldn’t come up with the odds of dying from radiation because it lists zero people dying in the United States from radiation in 2007, the most recent year for which these cause-of-death figures are available.
Ropeik calls this mismatch between statistics and feelings “a classic example of how public policy gets made _ not about the numbers alone, but how we feel about them, and it ends up doing us more harm.”
Kolaczkowski faulted his own industry.
“Those in the industry believe it is so complex it cannot be explained to the general public, so as a result, the industry has a trust-me attitude and that only goes so far,” he said. “We’re all afraid of the unknown, the ghosts under the bed.”
David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that presses for safer nuclear plants, is a former plant engineer. He likens the public’s fears to unjustified worries about shark attacks: The risks and deaths are small, but the attention and fears are big.
“It may be an irrational fear, but I don’t think it’s one that can be educated away,” Lochbaum said.
However, calling these fears irrational isn’t justified, said Georgetown University law professor and former Environmental Protection Agency associate administrator Lisa Heinzerling. She said people’s concerns have been unjustly trivialized.
People have been trained to think about and prepare for low-probability, catastrophic events like the earthquake and tsunami that caused the Japanese nuclear disaster, Heinzerling said. She pointed to homeowner’s insurance. Most people won’t have a fire that destroys their home, but “we worry about really big things even if they are improbable because we will be wiped out.”
Americans also have long had an ambivalence toward new technology, going back to worries about the introduction of electric lights in homes 130 years ago, said University of Detroit Mercy history professor John Staudenmaier,
“Americans overreact with adulation and awe, then overreact with fear and anxiety,” said Staudenmaier, editor emeritus of the academic journal Technology and Culture.
Trying to explain the fears, nuclear industry spokesman Kerekes said, “There’s a perception gap that exists.” But he adds: “Other industries haven’t had to do deal with an animated cartoon series that lasted, what, 25 years?”
That would be “The Simpsons.” Producer Al Jean said the show, which has been on the air since 1989, reflects America’s real feelings.
“There is something that taps into people’s view of big business, and in particular, nuclear power, which is giving profit-minded people complete control over life and death. It is a scary thought, and I think that is a topic for satire,” Jean said.
Jean recognizes that nuclear plant workers aren’t really like Homer Simpson and radiation doesn’t “put a cute third eye on a fish.” But he thinks his show is accurate with its portrayal of the greedy, conniving nuclear power plant owner Montgomery Burns: “Mr. Burns may be representative of some people in the nuclear industry _ not just nuclear, but all industries _ who seem like they’re more interested in getting the money rather than doing what’s safe. I think that’s what resonates in the public.”
Yet, Jean takes pride in noting that the Springfield nuclear power plant has never blown up.View Entire Story
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