The black swan, the white lies and the red herring: The story of nuclear power retold

E A S Sarma

Former Union Power Secretary, Govt of India

The black swan:

By any stretch of imagination, swans are always white, so it seemed, till the Dutch explorer, Willem de Vlamingh discovered black swans in Western Australia in 1697.

Naseem Nicholas Taleb, in his thought provoking books, “Fooled By Randomness” (2004) and “The Black Swan” (2010), coined the term, the “black swan”, to describe any rare statistical outlier or a surprise, whose outcome is enormous but is usually ignored, till the event actually takes place and is rationalised by hindsight.when its full impact is suddenly felt.There cannot be a better term to describe the myth about the safety of nuclear power than this, though the “hindsight” part of it is still in short supply.

Even an amateur statistician will know that in a stochastic situation, an “average” can be highly deceptive and an outlier, however remotely probable it may be, can occur any time, including the next moment. It is the events hidden cosily by the tail of a normal probability distribution curve that should worry any genuine disaster manager; not the predictable area within the bell portion of the curve.The nuclear establishment and the regulators the world over seem to have deliberately closed their eyes to these low-probability, hugely disastrous events that can take place today, tomorrow or at any moment in the future. To say that such events will not occur will be statistically fallacious.

In the event of a nuclear accident, the risk of a meltdown in a reactor will be great because its consequences are potentially devastating; not only will they be extensive but also they will have adverse inter-generational genetic implications. How probable is the occurrence of such an accident? With all the statistical might at their beck and call, no regulator has ever been able to assess such a probability accurately! On the other hand, instead of mulling over their failure to assess the risk, the regulators, like the proverbial ostriches prefering to close their eyes to the harsh reality of the world, are erroneously trying to convince the people that a low-probability risk is no risk at all.

The expert assessment of the accident risk in nuclear reactors in USA in 1979 is a telling example of how an outlier could fool the experts.

On March 9, 1979, the experts of US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC ) produced a report for the then Commissioner Peter Bradford entitled, “Probabilities That The Next Major Accident Occurs Within Prescribed Intervals.” In it, they estimated.the probability of the next major accident taking place within the next 400 reactor-years to be less than 0.5, and the corresponding probability of the next major accident taking place within the next 21 reactor-years to be less than 0.05. Within less than three weeks from that date, the Three Mile Island (TMI) meltdown took place in Unit 2, forcing USA to freeze its nuclear power development programme during the next three decades. Statistical parameters, if not properly understood, can fool the best experts!

In the case of the nuclear industry, red alerts always followed the serious accidents, never preceded them. It shows how the regulators and the disaster managers are so ill-prepared to anticipate and handle the calamities when they occur. Every new major nuclear accident temporarily wakes up the regulators from their deep slumber on safety. Their memories are short lived. They wait for the next accident to take place to wake them up from their slumber once again. The cosy relationship between the regulator and the regulated facilitates and nurtures such a slumber. That is what happened after TMI accident in 1979. The nuclear establishment and the regulators waited, basking in a false feeling of comfort, till Chernobyl exploded in 1986.

The Chernobyl accident in Russia contaminated large areas of Belarus (formerly Byelorussia), Ukraine and the Russian Federation, caused 4,000 deaths (it is the official figure; the fatalities could be more), disabled 70,000 people by radiation and affected 3.4 million people in Ukraine, including 1.26 million children. The liabilities of the accident are yet to be assessed accurately even till date. The only techical solution that could be found is to construct a sarcophagus over the stricken reactors to shield the surrounding population from the continuing radiation exposure.

After Chernobyl, the regulatory slumber resumed for another quarter of a century till the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi exploded, spewed out radioactive isotopes and melted down for reasons not fully clear even after one year. What worries every one is as to why the regulators refuse to foresee these black swan incidents and take the world community into confidence on the huge risks associated with the nuclear technology.

The white lies:
The nuclear establishment the world over believes that it can fool all the people all the time. White lies cannot remove a black taint, if the taint is deeply rooted in a technology.

One untruth that is often flaunted around without any feeling of guilt is that nuclear power is “100% safe”. To any one who is even remotely familiar with the science of statistics, this is pure heresy. Let us look at the basis for such misleading assertions on the safety of nuclear technology.

There are 435 nuclear reactors in operation in the world as in February, 2012. The total experience that the global community has of now with these reactors is 14,745 reactor-years, which implies an average of 34 years per reactor. Can any one hastily assert that nuclear technology is infallible, on the basis of such a severely limited reactor operation experience?

Around 80% of the world’s nuclear power plants are more than 20 years old, according to a post-Fukushima UN report, suggesting that the majority of the reactors are of vintage designs and are heavily accident prone. Many more reactors will outlive their age in due course. Since they cannot be easily decommissioned, the pro-nuclear regulators can be expected to permit the renewal of their licenses term after term. The industry is certainly begging for accidents to happen.

It is not as though the operation of these 435 reactors has been totally blemishless. In the case of each of these reactors, the world was on the brink of a major calamity one time or the other.

Ever since the first recorded “serious” accident at Chalk River in Ontario in 1952, thirty three “serious” accidents, as per IAEA’s definition, including TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima, have been recorded. They do not include the hundreds of less serious accidents that occurred, which could have snowballed into more serious disasters but providentially did not. Such accidents can be triggered by a simple human error, a mechanical failure, an act of terrorism or a natural calamity like an earth quake or a tsunami.

It is difficult to predict accurately either a human lapse or a mechanical failure nor will it be rational to assert that such failures will not take place. If a human error were to take place in a coal-based power plant, there could be some damage but it would be nowhere comparable to a nuclear disaster. The world community is yet to come to grips with the acts of terrorism. A terrorist attack on a nuclear installation can bring untold misery to the humanity. In the case of seismic events or tsunamis, the relevant scientific knowledge, as it exists today, is far too inadequate to predict their occurrence with any reasonable degree of accuracy. For a long time, the Deccan Plateau in India was considered seismically stable, till local seismic events of high intensity brought down Koyna dam causing many fatalities and destroyed the habitations in and around Latur, both the events taking place at different points of time in Maharashtra.. These were all black swan incidents that no one ever cared to take into account.

On the basis of the limited global experience of only 14,745 reactor-years and in the light of the real and potential disasters that have already taken place, does it not amount to a white lie on the part of the nuclear establishment to lull the people into silence by telling them that nuclear power is infallible?

Another feature that characterises the nuclear establishment is its unwillingness to accept the fact that all scientific knowledge has its limitations. Any statement made on the basis of such a knowledge base should be qualified appropriately.

To cite one example, a premier nuclear power utility in a developing country recently reported that the incidence of cancer and other diseases among the workers in its power plants is either “comparable to or lower than the national average”. By saying this, the utilty brushed aside the arguments of the civil society summarily. Someone who has read that report could even jump to the conclusion that if one stays close to a nuclear power plant, he or she could reduce the chances of getting cancer!

On the other hand, people residing near nuclear power plants are constantly worried about the radiation effects on their health. In USA, a significant number of nuclear power plants are known to have caused radioactive contamination of the ground water aquifers. The long-term health implications of exposure to low-intensity radiation are still not fully known with certainty. There are several scientific studies in Europe and other places that showed a higher incedence of cancer in areas surrounding the operating nuclear power plants. To make an open-ended assertion on the safety of exposure to low-intensity radiation is to mislead the people by conveniently glossing over the gaps in the existing scientific knowledge in such matters and making it look as though such exposure to low-intensity radiation is anything but unsafe. The utility was more interested in somehow advertising the safety of nuclear power, rather than trying to determine the true implications of low-intensity radiation in a scientific manner. Voices of dissent are necessary for the well being of both science and democracies. Not to respect dissent amounts to an affront to both scientific thinking and democratic processes.

There are similar untruths spoken about the “cost effectiveness” of nuclear power. Anyone familiar with nuclear power will know that there are several hidden costs not easily quantifiable in the case of nuclear electricity. In the absence of adequate experience, there is no way to determine the real cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant. With no durable technical solution in sight for waste management, no one can estimate the cost of disposing of the waste. The huge contingent liabilities that could arise from an accident are conveniently hidden by the governments by artificially capping them and passing on the burden to the unsuspecting tax payer. To declare that nuclear power is “competitive” is to play fraud on the people!

The red herring:
A red herring is intended to mislead or distract any one from the real issue. This is true of the way the nuclear protoganists are trying to sell the idea of nuclear power as the only solution to the energy problem of the world.

The climate issue has come in handy for these nuclear evangelists, as the electricity generated from the fossil fuels is “dirty” since it leaves a carbon foot-print that threatens the planet with atmospheric warming, a gradual rise in the sea levels and finally, extinction of the human race. On the other hand, nuclear power is “clean” and “green” and it offers an excellent alternative to coal, gas and oil-based electricity. So far so good! What about the hideous, life endangring radioactive footprint that nuclear electricity leaves behind it? In today’s intellectual discourse on energy policy, this aspect is conveniently glossed over as it will frustrate all those who are poster boys for nuclear energy. The nuclear option seems to have permanently killed the electricity generated from the fossil fuels. In the same breath, it has also successfully instilled a false feeling of security among the people and distracted the world from the need to adopt strategies to improve the demand side and supply side efficiencies as well as promoting electricity generation from renewable resources. There lies the red herring, if one looks for it.

A time has come for the world community not to ignore the black swan possibilities, expose the white lies about nuclear power and not be misled by the red herring of the climate argument that the nuclear establishment is trying to put forward.

If the planet is going to be threatened by global warming soon, its survival is equally under a serious threat sooner from nuclear power with all its associated accident risks, radiation hazards and, more important than everything, the threat of nuclear weapon proliferation that could put an abrupt end to the world in no time.





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