Monday, August 27, 2007

Living Is "Riskier" Than Nuclear Power

Y'know, I've seen this kind of claims forever. Newspaper column and people on the street often argue about something having a risk, or no amount of radiation is "safe", etc.. etc., without realizing quantitatively what they are saying in comparison to others that they have accepted. The case in point is the "risk" associated with nuclear power. It seems that the LA Times editorial has concluded that nuclear power is "extremely risky". That, in itself, is extremely irresponsible if one doesn't compare the risk involved with the risk others have accepted.

So it was good that R. Stephen White, emeritus professor of physics at University of California, Riverside, wrote back to blast such claims.

Really, how risky is nuclear power? The Three Mile Island meltdown was the worst accident in the history of U.S. commercial nuclear fission electricity generation. It occurred at a time when about 100 U.S. commercial reactors were generating electricity, with an average life span of about 30 years. Yet it caused no injuries or deaths. The emitted radiation was so low that it could hardly be measured. In the 20 years before and 28 years after that accident, no deaths from other U.S. commercial reactor meltdowns occurred.

But let's assume that three people had died in that emergency, and from that hypothetical make a simple estimate of the risk of death to a person in the United States by the operation of 100 reactors. We will assume a U.S. population of 300 million, and a person's lifetime of 75 years. Dividing the three deaths by the population of 300 million, we find the chance of a person's death over his/her lifetime is 1 in 100 million.

We now compare that risk to those a person may take every day, like riding in a vehicle or walking along the street. In the United States, about 40,000 people are killed each year in vehicle accidents. Five thousand of these are pedestrians. In the 28 years since the Three Mile Island accident, over 1 million people have been killed in U.S. vehicle accidents. In a person's 75-year lifetime, 3 million people will die. Thus, the chance of any one person being killed in his or her lifetime is 3 million divided by the 300 million population, or about 1 in 100. Driving is 1 million times more risky than nuclear fission generation of electricity. Riding in vehicles, even walking, with a risk of about 1 in 800, might be called "extremely risky."

Again, there is often a disconnect (hypocracy) between what people claim and do. They claim such-and-such is risky, yet they are practicing and accepting something even riskier. And note that this is the same pattern that can be applied to other things as well, such as the proclaim that "time is an illusion", without bothering with the fact the criteria being used to make such a claim can also be used to assert that "space is an illusion" as well. Yet, no one seems to be making such a claim. So why did they just pick on time?

Often, human actions are inconsistent.


No comments: