Things Are Not Always What They Appear To Be
The Nuclear Power Effect and how we are susceptible to it
On 26 April 1986, a safety test was carried out on the RBMK-type nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.
The test was held to help the development of a safety procedure for cooling water in the event of an electrical power outage. Three tests had been held in 1982, but none had been able to provide a solution.
The test was delayed by 10 hours which resulted in the team that had been prepared to manage the test to be replaced by an underprepared team.
During the preparations for the test, the reactor power dropped to near-zero, an unexpected level. Power was restored by the operators, but they had unwittingly put the reactor into a highly unstable condition.
Despite a similar event occurring a few years earlier, the team conducting was unaware of the severity of the situation. The risks were not explained on the operating instructions either.
The team proceeded with the test regardless and upon completion triggered the reactor shutdown. Due to construction flaws and the design of the reactor, the shutdown caused an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction.
Superheated cooling water was released which ruptured the reactor core in a steam explosion. An open-air reactor core fire also occurred which released high levels of airborne radioactive contamination for nine days which spread to places in the USSR and Western Europe before it was contained.
The incident came to be known as the Chernobyl disaster. 31 people died as an immediate result of the disaster, but the UN predicted a further 4,000 people may die as a result of exposure to radiation.
Chernobyl is considered to be the worst nuclear accident in history and contributed to a breakdown of public trust in Nuclear power.
But is all as it seems? Is Nuclear power as dangerous as we think? Is it any more dangerous than burning fossil fuels and contributing to climate change?
Sometimes, our perceptions can colour the truth. The risk of a nuclear power plant exploding trumps the reality that events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are outliers.
This is known as the Nuclear Power Effect and it has vast implications for how we view the world around us.
Plane or Car?
The aeroplane industry is one of the most heavily regulated on the planet. Not only do the planes have to meet strict safety regulations, but security in airports is taken very seriously.
So why do so many of us have a fear of flying?
The answer is very simple. Plane crashes are terrifying. If you’ve seen images of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers on 9/11, you’ll know what I mean.
There are two reasons plane crashes make headline news. One is that they are visually alarming. The sight of a plane crashing is a spectacle, an unerring and alarming one.
The other reason is that they are rare. In 2018, there were 11 fatal accidents which resulted in 523 fatalities among passengers and crew according to the International Air Transport Association.
This was an increase on the 6 fatal accidents with 19 fatalities among passengers and crew the previous year. The rate of accidents is tiny.
Indeed in 2018, the rate for a major accident involving a jet was 0.19. This is the equivalent of one major accident for every 5.4 million flights.
The numbers paint a clear picture. Apart from a few outliers, flying on an aeroplane is very safe. You have to be extremely unlucky to die in an aeroplane accident.
Our fears are due to perception rather than reality. We see plane crashes in the news, stories of aeroplanes going missing and we fear the worst. The idea of a plane crashing scares us, hence why we fear it even though the numbers tell us our fear is irrational.
This is no more evident than when you consider driving. You are much more likely to die in a car crash than a plane crash, but we feel much safer in cars than we do a plane.
The figures are very clear on this. 385 deaths occurred due to air and space transport accidents in the United States in 2017. This is in comparison to the 7,248 deaths as a result of accidents involving cars.
More people travel by car, but there is no shortage of plane flights every year. Yet, we face more anxiety getting behind the wheel than we do getting on a plane.
What this shows is that our perception of danger is coloured by extreme events. The sight of a plane crashing or a nuclear power plant exploding is more visceral and newsworthy than a car crash, despite the odds of either occurring being greater.
The benefits of nuclear power are numerous. It’s one of the most low-carbon energy sources. It’s reliable and cost-effective and has one of the smallest carbon footprints even with the construction of the plant taken into account.
In a world that is getting more and more warmer, which is damaging our environment, nuclear power represents a fundamental low-carbon alternative to our energy crisis.
However, governments do not want to invest in nuclear power. Environmental organisations such as Greenpeace aren’t convinced about the benefits of it either.
This is despite fossil fuels contributing to millions of deaths every year. The United Nations estimates that 7 million people die from air pollution every year.
Transitioning to nuclear power would save lives and provide energy which does not pollute our environment anywhere near as much as fossil fuels. Yet, it’s unpopular with the public and governments.
This was highlighted in the Netflix documentary Inside Bill’s Brain. Despite his best efforts, Gates was unable to convince the US and Chinese governments to back his company, TerraPower, in building a reactor.
The aversion to nuclear power runs deep and is unlikely to be overcome anytime soon. The rate of renewable energy growth is increasing all the time. From 2000 to 2016, the usage of renewable energy sources increased by 67%.
This is needed if we are to combat the climate crisis, but nuclear power does have a part to play in this. However, it’s unlikely to get the backing due to our perception of the risks involved.
Since the advent of nuclear energy, there have been 27 incidents which resulted in multiple fatalities or over $100 million in damage. That is in stark contrast to the damage wrecked on the planet by fossil fuels.
Yes, there are questions about radioactive waste and how we dispose of it. The safety of nuclear reactors and the potential risks of terrorism are also pertinent, but the risks are not as great as we think.
Events such as Chernobyl and Fukushima have shaped our perceptions even though they are outliers and unrepresentative of nuclear power as a whole.
Sometimes what we think is right is not what it seems.
It’s easy to get taken in by images of plane crashes and nuclear reactor meltdowns and extrapolate that the two are dangerous. However, the reality is different.
Yes, there is inherent risk in both, but the risk is not as great as we think. As humans, we are prone to give more weight to spectacular events.
A plane crash is much more unnerving than a car crash. Even if you are in a car crash. I have been hit by cars twice while cycling, yet it doesn’t stop me riding my bike every day.
If I were to be involved in a plane crash and live to tell the tale, I may be more reluctant to jump on a plane afterwards. This is often because events are out of our control in these scenarios.
Unlike when we ride our bike or drive our car, we are not in control of a plane or in charge of a nuclear reactor. This makes them appear more dangerous than they are.
We tend to overestimate our abilities behind the wheel or our on a bike and underestimate those of a pilot or nuclear technician. The feeling of not being control lapses into fear when we feel something going wrong.
The story of the nuclear power effect is that we give greater emphasis to the spectacular and catastrophic and ignore everyday risk as a result.
As perceptive as we think we are, the reality is we are not.