Black swans and nuclear disasters

When I was a business reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle here in Rochester, N.Y., I interviewed, and largely believed, supposed experts on risk about how members of the lay public exaggerated the dangers of nuclear power.

These risk specialists said people feared nuclear power because they were prone to irrational fear of dangers that potentially are great, but whose possibility of actually occurring are so small as to be virtually non-existent.

fukushima-factsThe U.S. nuclear power industry did, in fact, have a good safety record.  Even after the partial nuclear reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, in 1979, it was possible to say that no identifiable American had died as a result of nuclear power.

Then came the Chernobyl disaster of 1986 which made parts of Ukraine a toxic wasteland.  I attributed the tragedy to Communists not being able to manage a nuclear power plant competently.

Such a disaster would be highly improbable in a Western country, I thought.  And the last place I thought such a disaster could happen was Japan.  Not only were the Japanese known for being meticulous about good engineering practice, they were the only nation to have suffered nuclear bombing and would be especially nervous and careful about anything nuclear.

By the time of the Fukushima disaster of 2011, I had read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan, and realized that the human tendency is to forget that the improbable is not impossible.  How likely was it it that a nuclear plant site would be hit simultaneously with an earthquake and a tidal wave?  Yet it happened.

Fukushima is an ongoing disaster that is much, much worse than anyone thought it could be.  Click on The REAL Fukushima Danger for a comprehensive roundup on Washington’s Blog to understand just how bad it is.

§§§

I am not, in fact, opposed to nuclear power in principle.  I would be in favor of a plan to build a new generation of state-of-the-art nuclear power plants in the United States, provided that they are located on seismically stable sites, provided that there is a plan for safe disposal of nuclear waste, and provided the operators adhere to their schedule for decommissioning the plants.

What I am not in favor of is continuing to operate current nuclear power plants, some of which are located on earthquake fault zones, past their scheduled decommissioning dates.  Since likelihood of U.S. adoption of the kind of nuclear power program I propose is virtually zero, I am in practice an opponent of nuclear power.

Actually, black swans are unusual, but not unheard of.  Click on Black Swans for a Wikipedia article on the non-metaphorical black swans.

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