Frame of Reference
“Tell us your phobias and we will tell you what you are afraid of.” – Robert Benchley
In early August of 1975, Typhoon Nina came crashing over Taiwan as a Category 3 storm. Heavy rainfall triggered massive flooding, resulting in the deaths of 29 people. As the storm crossed the Taiwan Strait into mainland China, biblical levels of precipitation fell over vast swaths of the Chinese countryside, ultimately causing the total collapse of the giant Banqiao Dam in Henan Province. Dozens of other hydroelectric dams fell like deadly dominoes, swamping millions of homes downstream and devastating entire communities. Although the scale of the catastrophe was initially covered up by the Communist Party of China (CCP), it is now estimated that at least 26,000 and as many as 240,000 people were killed.
On July 6, 2013, a 73-car freight train operated by Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic Railway (MMA) derailed in the heart of the small town of Lac-Mégantic in the Province of Québec. The train was carrying Bakken crude and several cars exploded. The horrific inferno destroyed over 30 buildings, taking the lives of 47 innocent souls. The blast radius was estimated to be over a half-mile wide, and the blaze required approximately 150 firefighters to be extinguished. The tight-knit community of 6,000 people has been forever scarred by the incident.
That same year, two young mechanics died while servicing a wind turbine in Ooltgensplaat, The Netherlands. The pair were trapped on high as the fire approached them, and a gut-wrenching photograph of the two embracing moments before their tragic passing was widely circulated on the internet. One chose to leap nearly 260 feet to his death while the other succumbed to the smoke and flames. They are among the dozens of workers who have died while installing or servicing wind energy projects.
These deadly events occurred as a consequence of humanity’s unrelenting pursuit of energy. Harnessing, storing, and transporting energy across long distances is inherently risky business, no matter the energy source. Society generally responds to these tragedies—and the hundreds of other similar examples we could have selected—in reasonable and measured ways. The world did not abandon hydroelectric power because of the possibility of freak occurrences like Typhoon Nina. On the contrary, millions of people still actively choose to live within the flood radius of a potential dam failure. Huge volumes of oil are still shipped by rail each day despite the deadly incident in Lac-Mégantic, and executive actions like scuttling the Keystone Pipeline only serve to fortify demand for such services for decades to come. Despite the horrific death of those two young mechanics, government support for wind energy continues to grow exponentially. In all circumstances, risks were measured, tradeoffs were made, and society moved forward.
Why is nuclear energy treated so differently?
Unique among the primary energy providers, the civilian nuclear power industry has been the subject of a decades-long propaganda campaign whose aim is to stoke irrational fear to the point that the general population loses faith in the technology altogether. No risk is too small to amplify beyond all plausible proportion, no benefit too large to minimize into irrelevancy. As a result, much of the industrialized world is effectively being robbed of the true and full potential benefits of this nearly inexhaustible source of clean, safe, and reliable energy.
What are the genuine risks of nuclear technology, and how do they compare to other aspects of our everyday lives? What are the most common rhetorical sleights-of-hand used by the industry’s opponents and how can its supporters counter them? Let’s analyze the numbers, point out the logical fallacies, and reclaim the scientific high ground.