Published in the June 2013
issue of the Canadian
Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.34, No.2.
The Softer Side of Safety
by Jeremy Whitlock
It's official: public communication is now the single highest safety risk associated with nuclear power.
This situation has been suspected for some time by those in the know, but Fukushima has provided a rare opportunity for verification, albeit unintended (as the best social experiments often are). A number of heavyweights, most notably UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) and WHO (World Health Organisation) have officially declared what knowledgeable observers noted in the chaotic days after March 11, 2011: there will be no health impact from the radiation released by the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
There is no doubt that there will be a significant health impact, however, from the miscommunication and misunderstanding surrounding the radiation released from Fukushima. Hundreds have died, and thousands have suffered the stress of displacement - compounding the loss of friends, family, homes, businesses, and careers due to the tsunami itself.
This mortality and trauma is not just caused by an unnecessary evacuation of the surrounding region, but by the underlying dread of radiation that was there in the population long before Fukushima happened - now stirred up, like Godzilla from the deep. This same dread haunts the waking thoughts of folks in the contaminated regions around Chernobyl, who, like those around Fukushima, have been exposed to safe levels of radiation which the world has told them is a death sentence.
It's the same dread that sent thousands fleeing the Three Mile Island accident unnecessarily in 1979, with the inevitable heart attacks, traffic accidents, and other stress-related fallout. Counter-intuitively, that chaos in Pennsylvania, like the three meltdowns in Fukushima, was a testament to the safety of nuclear technology - which, despite egregious human error and flawed design, led to no direct health effect. Never in the field of safety engineering, has so much been owed by so many but appreciated by so few.
It wasn't always this way. The world's first major reactor accident, at Chalk River in 1952, occurred before the anti-nuclear meme began replicating. Something of a mini-Chernobyl in its own right, the NRX accident made an unassuming splash in the media of the day and quickly disappeared. No evacuation, no senior citizens left to die in gymnasiums, no children traumatized by men dressed head-to-toe in white Tyvek like something from the movie E.T.
The fear took over much later, when 60's/70's cold war activism turned its sights on the much softer target of nuclear power. It was a hair trigger, and a stuck-open pressure relief valve at Three Mile Island touched it off.
The public perception side of nuclear safety, and the legal world that feeds upon it, are what drive the "nuclear liability" regime that in many countries, including Canada, requires that absolute third-party liability be assumed by nuclear operators - basically "no-fault" insurance for the public to claim against following a nuclear incident. This has little to do with actual safety risk (which after all would be very difficult for actuarial science to tease out, given the almost zero global frequency). It has everything to do with litigation risk, and the resulting wariness of a small supplier industry which knows that perception is everything.
Liability, of course, is infinite (as the late Petr Beckmann, champion of the nuclear oppressed, liked to point out). Legal liability, however, needs a ceiling - and the new $1 billion cap recently announced by the Canadian government (with protocols for going beyond this if needed) allows the wheels of the industry to turn while also managing the public fear.
Other energy technologies with greater safety risk, like hydro, do not have to manage this public fear, are not legislated to obtain third-party liability coverage, and have no public perception in their safety equation.
It is a fear tax, deservedly levied, only on nuclear power.
Why deserved? Because, despite public communication being the single highest safety risk associated with nuclear power, it is the one component of nuclear safety that, in a half-century of operation, we have done the least to address.