Angels on a Pin
“And lord, we're especially thankful for nuclear power, the cleanest safest energy source there is. Except for solar, which is just a pipe dream.” – Homer Simpson
In 2005, a junior employee at General Motors (GM) was test-driving a 2006 Chevy Impala ahead of its model release. As the road surface under her tires changed from asphalt to dirt, the car suddenly stalled at speed, creating a dangerous and undoubtedly scary situation. After safely handling the incident and consulting with a technician who speculated it might have something to do with a faulty ignition switch, the employee sent a now notorious email to 11 co-workers in which she said, “I think this is a serious safety problem, especially if this switch is on multiple programs. I’m thinking big recall.”
Nine years later, Mary Barra, the newly installed CEO of GM, found herself struggling to explain that email in her testimony before an irate Congress. As it turned out, some ignition switches used at GM across multiple high-volume models were deficient in their ability to sustain large torque and vibration shocks, and under rare circumstances, their failure could cause the engine to cut off. Worse still, airbags would not deploy if a crash occurred shortly after such a power failure, further jeopardizing the safety of those trapped by such circumstances. Despite internal knowledge of this possible defect, GM did not address the problem until long after hindsight would have indicated it was wise to do so. The heat of Congress’ glare forced GM to scramble to make things right, and they ultimately compensated the families of 124 victims.
While more than 100 preventable deaths worldwide over the span of a decade are indeed terrible, the US alone averaged approximately 37,000 traffic fatalities per year during that same period, making the ignition switch defects accountable for a minuscule fraction of the US total. Automotive engineers are routinely forced to make tradeoffs between safety and cost – we don’t drive around in armored vehicles, after all – and it is widely understood that “zero deaths” is an unattainable objective. Luxury cars are more crash-resistant and have better safety features than economy models, putting a literal and regressive price on safety risks that we implicitly accept as a society. What made the ignition switch issue worthy of full-blown congressional hearings and the subject of around-the-clock reporting by major news outlets? As any crisis management professional can tell you, the answer is quite simple:
Hazard equals risk times outrage.
Few things generate as much outrage as a good corporate malfeasance story, especially one with signs of an internal coverup, needless harm to consumers, and a visceral connection to something most people do in their daily lives.
If outrage is a multiplier on risk that results in potent demands to eliminate the associated hazard, it should come as no surprise to find outrage used as a tactic to shift public perception against a concept, a person, an entity, or an industry. If a group is opposed to something and can create outrage against that thing, then that group wields an incredibly powerful tool. When it comes to public safety, propagandists know that when they can focus people on a specific risk, zero tolerance will become the default acceptable answer. Ignition switches are simple enough devices, ergo there should be no deaths associated with their use in automobiles. (See also: the baby safety industrial complex).
Zero is an emotional number.
The civilian nuclear power industry is one that has thus suffered at the hands of deceptive propagandists for decades, especially as it pertains to the wildly overblown risks associated with nuclear waste. This topic is by far the number one inbound inquiry we receive whenever we publish a piece expressing our support for nuclear. According to anti-nuclear activists, the industry creates a vast amount of deadly toxic waste that will last millions of years, and, in servicing our greedy need for energy today using nuclear technology, we are condemning future generations to a perpetual environmental disaster.
The actual risks involved here are tiny, and extremists must persistently dial up the outrage machine with ersatz jeopardy to continue their hazard parade. It’s time to label these critiques for what they are: exaggerated myths meant to rob humanity of a nearly limitless source of carbon-free energy. Let’s dig in.