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.

Thinking about risk matters.

Understanding our gut reactions, and when they may lead us astray, is crucial if we want to minimise real and significant risks, instead of only avoiding those which most efficiently attract our attention. On the topic of energy, this is most strikingly noticeable with the one energy form people tend to fear the most: nuclear power.

Why are we intuitively afraid of nuclear power?

Risk research informs us that unfamiliar, imposed, and artificial risks are ushered into the fast-lane when we make judgements on threats [Slovic 1987]. As our newest energy form, nuclear power fits many of these quick criteria. Most other sources of energy are much more familiar to us, because we can touch, sense, and manipulate them ourselves. We understand what it is to control the flow of water, tend to a fire, soak up sunlight, or set up a sail. We have an immediate practical sense of how to deal with things like smoke, heat, or flood waves. But we don’t intuitively know how to control nuclear fission – and we can’t even detect ionizing radiation with our senses.

Our natural flash judgements on risk have led to a large discrepancy in fear vs actual risks of nuclear power. To quote risk consultant Peter Sandman [Sandman 2007]:

“The risks that kill people and the risks that upset people are completely different.”

This is apparent when we look at fatalities per amount of energy produced: the most feared energy source is also our least harmful one [Markandya & Wilkinson, Our World In Data, Statista]. Nuclear, together with wind energy, is safer even than solar or hydro power, and far less deadly than any energy source that relies on burning (such as fossils and biomass), which contribute to millions of deaths from air pollution every year [the WHO, Rabl et al 2014].

Infographic courtesy of Rauli Partanen, an award-winning non-fiction author and a Finnish energy analyst from Think Atom.

Meanwhile, even radiation itself is not perceived very harmful if it is associated with natural sources – which is where the majority of our exposures come from (see graph above). We are very quick to fear anything perceived as artificial, while we easily underestimate natural hazards.

Risk perceptions themselves can become dangerous when they cause more harm than good, and our fear of nuclear power has tragically proven deadlier than the radiation itself. Hasty and prolonged evacuations after nuclear accidents have taken a psychological and societal toll far larger than any avoided health effects from leaked ionising radiation [UNSCEAR 2008, Smith 2007, Thomas 2018], while premature nuclear shut-downs have caused, and continue to cause tens of thousands of deaths from air pollution, as share of coal increases [Kharecha & Sato 2019].

These are not scientifically controversial findings, but they are sadly overshadowed into obscurity by our aversion to a force so strange and intangible to our senses. This should give us pause: our fears are formidable enough to cause us to overlook real human tragedies.

Figures from paper by Kharecha & Sato 2019: Implications of energy and CO2 emission changes in Japan and Germany after the Fukushima accident (Energy Policy)

This is particularly striking when we look at energy accidents. Nuclear accidents have gained a legendary place in our cultures, whereas most of us don’t really think twice about an order of magnitude more lives lost in largest energy-related accidents in human history – because we don’t know about them. We are strikingly unaware even about energy accidents that are more recent, more deadly, or more environmentally damaging (I have delved into this in detail earlier in my three-part series on energy accidents [Thoughtscapism]). If the accidents do not involve nuclear power, they simply do not demand as much of our attention.

Interestingly, man-made sources of radioactive contamination still garner minimal attention if they result from a more familiar source of energy – like when spread into the environment in the form of coal-ash (100 times more radiation exposure than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy [Scientific American 2007]). But the largest risks lie somewhere else entirely.

Ionizing radiation is only a tiny part of our total risk landscape, but how we view it has a very significant role to play in humanity’s future – in how we tackle the really big issues, like air pollution, habitat destruction, and most of all, decarbonisation to mitigate climate change.

Acknowledging my own natural biases has been a humbling yet important journey, which has lead to a gradual change in my perception on nuclear power. Growing up I readily absorbed culturally prominent views on nuclear, and considered its risks insurmountable. But I’ve come to realise that popular assumptions are a poor substitute for proper understanding. On this topic, our instincts lead us astray.

Concern for the future of the planet my children will grow up on, combined with a careful weighing of the grave risks they are facing are the reason I have become a Mother for Nuclear.

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A few words on the recent German-speaking context on discussions about nuclear power: Nuklearia’s founder Rainer Klute recently had an article published in a major newspaper, Die Zeit, on the important role of new nuclear in fighting climate change. It appeared shortly after a German minister had spoken to the press about the importance of prioritising shut-down of coal over nuclear reduction, calling for greater political courage for the sake of climate goals. The German society Ökomoderne has been promoting a similar message. Here’s for hoping that the German world will continue to break their taboo of discussing nuclear energy.

For further articles on radiation and risk, you can read the series on Risk In Perspective, or my pieces: What Level of Risk Justifies Denying People Their Homes? A Look at Fukushima vs Pollution in Big CitiesRadiation and Cancer Risk – What Do We Know? and Radiation Exposures at a Glance. More on nuclear power found under Climate and Energy.

If you would like to have a discussion in the comments below, please take note of my Commenting policy. In a nutshell:

  1. Be respectful.
  2. Back up your claims with evidence.


About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, volunteer science communicator, and fiction writer.
This entry was posted in climate, energy, health, psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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

  1. Norm says:

    I don’t see the author’s name. Is the author Rainer Klute or someone else?


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