Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Comparing Risk with Risk

The engineering geek in me gets impatient, from time to time, with talk of "risk-benefit analysis." As in, "Do the benefits of thus-and-so outweigh the risks?" Benefits are benefits, and risks are risks; they are unlike quantities, and to talk about whther one "outweighs" the other is about as reasonable as asking whether my apple is crisper than my pickup truck is dirty. Unlike quantities can't be compared in this way, and it's one of the shortcomings of the English language that we can so easily talk about such comparisons.

But a CNN story about the latest coal-mining disaster has an interesting sidebar: it bulletizes a handful of mining catastrophes, going back to 1984, in which a total of 63 people were killed. And yet, we go on generating electricity by burning coal. We don't build any nuclear power plants, because we were scared spitless by Three Mile Island (at which how many were killed or injured? that's right, zero) and Chernobyl, which ocurred in the essentially third-world context of the old Soviet Union.

In terms of excess deaths, those 63 miners in the past two decades alone are a drop in the bucket, compared with the excess deaths and illnesses caused by breathing the same air in which millions of tons of coal are burned.

The risks associated with various methods of generating a reliable electrical supply cannot meaningfully be compared to the benefits of the availability of that supply. But the risks associated with one kind of generation can be compared to the risks associated with other kinds of generation -- and should be. This may be a situation in which a class analysis is useful, however out-of-fashion Marxism may be. Could it be that the nuclear risk, while clearly smaller, is less tolerable to us because it applies to the population more generally -- while coal-mining accidents are bad mostly for people who are sort of Appalachian, and don't exactly live in our neighborhoods? Ugly ... but not implausible.


lemming said...

You raise an excellent point - I know that black lung isn't as prevalent as it was when my ancestors worked in the coal mines, but I'm sure that conditions down in the mines must also carry some sort of long-term health consequences, not as easily measured.

LP Mike Sylvester said...

Nuclear power has always been safer then coal.

I worked in the nuclear power industry for about 8 years. I got out when I realized The Federal government was NEVER going to allow another nuclear pwoer plant to be built in The United States.

James Aach said...

You might find this interesting: "Rad Decision" is a new techno-thriller novel about the American nuclear power industry, written by a longtime nuclear engineer (me). This book provides an entertaining and accurate portrait of the nuclear industry today and how a nuclear accident would be handled. The concepts of societal risk and choice which you discuss above are also covered.

"Rad Decision" is at, and there is no cost to readers.

Take a look - and if you enjoy it, please pass the word.

Grace said...

Oh, it's a wonderful mixture of so many things. Maybe as the two main generations (the baby boomers and their parents) who grew up fearing a (military) nuclear holocaust die out, the next generation that takes control will look at nuclear power differently.

I've gone back and forth on how comfortable I feel about nuclear power several times. After all, I spent a good portion of my grammar school days doing duck-and-cover drills; and Three Mile Island, while not close, also was not that far away if radiation had been released and the wind was blowing right.

Now I've reached the age where I realize that it's the drunk driver or the lone mutant cell that's going to get me first. So if I could have cheap, reliable energy in the meantime....

The Redhead :-) said...

As I had an aunt and uncle that lived in Richland, Washington, and my uncle worked at Hanford - and they both died of cancer - I'm not sure I trust nuclear power. He got "sprayed" several times and had to have treatment that's required after an exposure. He had thyroid, and she had lymphoma. I don't know...maybe they're more careful now *shrug*