Fukushima & the Fallacy of the Worst-case Scenario

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    A couple days ago, I wrote a blog post criticizing how the New York Times and other media outlets were describing the results of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation’s new report on the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

    Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute have expressed similar views in their Slate.com article: “The Fukushima Question: How close did Japan really get to a widespread nuclear disaster?

    The Rebuild Japan report seems, on its face, to have been produced by a highly credible team of “30 university professors, lawyers and journalists.” But even a seemingly legitimate study deserves a skeptical eye. Yet Fackler and the Times chose not to quote a single independent expert on nuclear energy besides Rebuild Japan’s Funabashi. It should have been a red flag that Rebuild Japan gave its report to journalists a full week before releasing it to the public, which prevented outside experts from evaluating its claims. Another hint that the report merited a contrary opinion was the fact that it excluded any account from Tepco executives, who refused to be interviewed by Rebuild Japan investigators.

    There’s no question that the findings from the Rebuild Japan study merited coverage, but the Times might have shown more awareness of the fallacy of the worst-case scenario. “In any field of endeavor,” wrote physicist Bernard Cohen in his classic 1990 study, The Nuclear Energy Option, “it is easy to concoct a possible accident scenario that is worse than anything that has been previously proposed.” Cohen goes on to spin a scenario of a gasoline spill resulting in out-of-control fires, a disease epidemic, and, eventually, nuclear war.

    Cohen concludes his fantastical thought experiment by saying, “I have frequently been told that the probability doesn’t matter—the very fact that such an accident is possible makes nuclear power unacceptable. According to that way of thinking, we have shown that the use of gasoline is not acceptable, and almost any human activity can similarly be shown to be unacceptable. If probability didn’t matter, we would all die tomorrow from any one of thousands of dangers we live with constantly.”

    Ampontan has also blasted the international media coverage of the Rebuild Japan report. He is especially skeptical of the view that Prime Minister Kan saved Tokyo:

    No excerpt of the official report I read contained the conclusion that Tokyo was in danger of being “finished”. They did say that Mr. Kan and Mr. Edano had lost their heads, however.

    Update: Over at Forbes, Tim Worstall has commented on how the “demonic chain reaction” feared by Edano and Kan was not possible:

    That’s what the report does say: that the politicians were worrying that such things could have been possible. And there’s very much a difference between a politician being confused about matters technical and a scientific report stating that there could have been a series of nuclear explosions. The first, confused and or ignorant politicians, is pretty much the normal state of affairs. The second, well the report just doesn’t say that it nearly happened nor even that it was possible.

    The actual worst case scenario for the Fukushima reactors was what actually happened to them. That there would be both hydrogen explosions damaging the outer casing and also a meltdown of the core. That was and is the limiting worst case for these types of reactor. A chain reaction of nuclear explosions is no more possible than it is that the local uranium mine is about to take out Hiroshima. Far from taking out Tokyo those plants would, in the worst case, be exactly what they are today. Very large and very expensive buildings which we can do nothing useful with and which are thus a very large economic loss. No one was killed by radiation and we’ll never actually know whether anyone ever will be. For given what we know about radiation, the amount and type of it released, the effect will simply be too small for us to ever know whether anyone has been killed by it.

    And Ampontan is continuing his attack on the Kan.

    [hat tip to Aceface and Eido]

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