The Risks of Failed Risk Assessments On Natural vs Unfamiliar Sources of Energy

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Read here for the German version Das Risiko, Risiken falsch einzuschätzen.

German society Nuklearia kindly invited me to write about risk perceptions on the topic of energy on their blog, where this piece originally appeared in German. You can read it in English below.

Humans are naturally bad at assessing complex risks. We have an inborn ability to make risk-assessments quickly using mental shortcuts, or biases, which have been helpful to us in the course of evolution. But in a world full of abstract information, it’s important to realise that these shortcuts are very far from error-free.

No one is immune to these basic biases – not policy makers, regulators, scientists, or anyone else. I highly value my training as a scientist, but as a mother, I also know that any potential threat to my children will elicit a jolt of worry long before I have time for a slow and deliberate weighing of the risks in light of best possible evidence. However, I also understand that if I persistently fail to give the slow and reflective assessments of risks a chance to check my instinctive judgements, I can unintentionally end up exposing my children to more harm. Continue reading

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What Level of Risk Justifies Denying People Their Homes? A Look at Fukushima vs Pollution in Big Cities

I was very moved after hearing the heartfelt testimonies of teacher Yoshiko Aoki, high-school student Moe Harada, and a group of students dialling in from Fukushima to the OECD NEA risk communication workshop in Paris. I previously shared with you their Stories from Tomioka town, Fukushima. But I felt that I needed to do more – I wanted to honour the last plea the students made before they hung up:

“Everyone should try to know the real facts about Fukushima.”


Within Tomioka town there are still off-limits areas barred with metal fences.

I have tried to do just that. I looked for information on the areas that were so painful for the teacher, Ms Aoki to see: where inhabitants of Tomioka town are still barred from entering. Although coming back to their homes in 2017 was cause for happiness and an opportunity to finally begin to heal for Aoki and more than a thousand others, the existence of these off-limit areas sounded from her account like wounds in the town itself.

“There are barriers in our town, where people are forbidden to go.”

In this piece write about my attempt to understand the kind of risks the authorities were protecting their people from with such extreme measures. Continue reading

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Stories from Tomioka Town, Fukushima


I want to share with you the touching testimonies of a teacher and students of Tomioka town in Fukushima prefecture, whom I had the privilege of listening to while I attended a radiological risk communication workshop at OECD Nuclear Energy Agency’s headquarters in Paris in September 2019.

Teacher Yoshiko Aoki and high-school student Moe Harada had traveled from Japan in order to give us their personal accounts of how their lives were disrupted by the tsunami, the Daiichi nuclear plant accident, and the events that followed.

Continue reading

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Chemical Exposures: The Good, the Bad, and the Tiny

I have often written about the lack of perspective on chemical scares, which is why I was happy to find out that Swedish Professor Emeritus in toxicology, Lennart Dencker, has written a book on this topic called “Not as dangerous as many might think.”

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Prof Denck interviewed at the Swedish magazine Research and Progress about his book.

In the Uppsala University press release he elaborates that with his book he wants to give the public, particularly teachers, better tools to assess the many alarm-inducing headlines we see about chemicals. He feels a responsibility to share the knowledge he has accumulated during his research career, and wants to help give the younger generation a better chance at developing a reasonable view of the situation pertaining to risk and toxicology.

Our environment has never been as ‘clean’ as it is today in Sweden,

he says in an interview to the Swedish magazine Research and Progress, pointing out how significant toxic exposures like indoor smoking, leaded gasoline, and older generation pesticides have all but disappeared within his own life-time. Continue reading

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Appreciating Stories – as a Scientist, Writer, and Human

When things get difficult, I seek comfort in stories. This might not be so surprising, after all, stories are the fundamental building blocks of human reality.


Evolution is one of the most fascinating stories of reality.

We view the world through our identity, the story of who we are, and we weave in new information into our worldview in the form of stories, too. All too easily we may reject information if we feel it does not fit into the narratives important to us.

Science, for me, is the idea that the story of the universe is so incredible and so valuable, that it is worth it to keep our narratives open so that we may consider new plot twists carefully even if they may at first confuse or surprise us. Real things in the world matter, and our stories should strive to align with that reality. Often enough reality is indeed stranger than our fictions.

That’s not to downplay the role of fiction, fantasy, and imagination in our lives. Continue reading

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World’s Worst Energy Accidents in Environmental Perspective

I began my three-part series on energy accidents to answer the question: “What about Chernobyl?” This type of concern invariably comes up whenever nuclear power is discussed, as fear of nuclear accidents is something that is cemented into our cultural consciousness. I wanted to help put these concerns into perspective.

In my first look at that question I put the World’s Deadliest Energy Accidents in Perspective. I dedicated the next piece to environmental concerns: “What About Radioactive Wastelands?” A Look at Chernobyl’s Effects on Nature, assessing the idea (which I also used to hold) that nuclear accidents could make large swaths of land uninhabitable for humans and nature. I noted that nature was notably impacted by the radioactive contamination in about 40 square km (15 square miles) area around the power plant, or about 1-2% of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, including dead and stunted trees and rodent and invertebrate deaths. Most of the areas quickly recovered, however.

The absence of people in the Zone lead to a increase in wildlife numbers. Undeterred by radiation, thriving populations were established of more than 400 vertebrates, including many protected species. As the WHO put it: “a unique sanctuary for biodiversity” was created.

It appears then, that common idea of an uninhabitable wasteland as consequence of the Chernobyl accident is misleading, and large camera trap surveys have found no evidence to support the idea that animal populations would be suppressed in highly contaminated areas.

Now for the last part of this three-part series: how do these environmental impacts compare to the effects of other energy accidents? Continue reading

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“What About Radioactive Wastelands?” A Look at Chernobyl’s Effects on Nature

“What about Chernobyl?” is a question many people ask whenever nuclear power is discussed. In my first look at that question, in the previous article, I put the World’s Deadliest Energy Accidents in Perspective. But many people will point out that direct human health effects are only a part of the story, and rightly so. What about the risk of making large swaths of land uninhabitable for humans or nature? This is probably the most iconic of our fears when it comes to nuclear accidents, and it also used to be my main concern with nuclear power. As I wrote in Nuclear Waste: Ideas vs Reality:

How could we justify producing any amount of energy if – bear with me – that meant risking that large areas of the earth become barren wastelands, should anything go wrong?

Continue reading

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