Fear and Fukushima Fallout

No blog from me for a while, apologies.

However, I have an article up on Spiked today about the real and metaphorical fallout from Fukushima. Last week, UK monitoring stations detected infinitesimal quantities of iodene-131 from the accident there, leading to some strange comments from politicians and the media.

‘Fukushima radiation from Japan’s stricken plant detected across UK’, reported the Guardian, followed by a half-hearted attempt to emphasise the HPA’s advice that there was no risk present to human health. This included repeating the HPA’s ‘warning’ that ‘radiation levels in the UK could rise’. However, it’s hard to construe as a ‘warning’ the advice that even raised levels ‘will be significantly below any level that could cause harm to public health’. This was followed by a story that Alex Salmond, the Scottish first minister, had claimed that the HPA had delayed publishing their advice in order to prevent causing embarrassment to the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment – headed by erstwhile chief scientific adviser to the UK government, Sir David King – which was due to make a public call for investment in nuclear energy.

I think this shows some of the limitations of contemporary politics, not just environmentalism.

I have to admit, I have been surprised at the absurd levels of radiophobia surrounding this accident. I was hoping to put the scale of the ‘radiation from Japan’s stricken plant detected across UK’ into some numerical perspective. Here’s the start of that attempt, which I didn’t put into the article,

A slightly morbid experiment often given to science students is to estimate the number of molecules of air in our lungs might have also been exhaled by some historical figure during their final breath. Einstein is a popular and poignant choice. The outcome of the estimation varies, depending on how much attention to detail one wants to pay and which assumptions one makes, but it’s possible to argue that in each breath we take, there are 15 molecules which were also present in Einstein’s last gasp. This would seem remarkable, except that there are approximately 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules in each breath we take.

It struck me, however, that if there’s anything rational really driving radiophobia, it’s not any actual risk that can substantiated which bothers the anti-nuclear lobby. Instead, like many climate-alarmists, it’s mere theoretical possibility that really panics them. This enters the nuclear debate, just as with the climate debate, via the precautionary principle. This, I think, can be best summed up as ‘risk-analysis without numbers’. It doesn’t matter how you populate any such calculation with actual numbers (ie ‘knowns’), its what you don’t know which weighs the most.

As I mention in the article, no doubt this comes across to many as ‘pro-nuclear’. But the point is not to extol the virtues of any particular means of producing energy. What is at stake in the discussion about how to produce it is the benefit it creates for us. Not just ‘us’ here in the west, where more expensive energy has a relatively limited impact (for the moment, at least, though I’m sure the increasing cost of energy will begin to start having much more serious material and social effects in the future), but also for poorer parts of the world, who will really have to suffer the effects of Western anxieties about climate and nuclear.

15 thoughts on “Fear and Fukushima Fallout”

  1. Ben says

    I have to admit, I have been surprised at the absurd levels of radiophobia surrounding this accident.

    Really? I wasn’t. Media scaremongering and public confusion on nuclear have been constants for my entire life (I’m 45). And the great shrubbery of eco-think that has flourished over the last 20 years has achieved the seemingly impossible.

    It has made things worse.

  2. Ben, “It doesn’t matter how you populate any such calculation with actual numbers (ie ‘knowns’), its what you don’t know which weighs the most.”

    Very good; and for me at least the best demonstration that environmentalism is about politics rather than science. I’ve also noticed recent comparisons between eugenics and environmentalism – and it does seem superficially at least as if the relationship between politics and science is the same in both cases. Does the history of eugenics therefore give any clues regarding how best to oppose the political side of environmentalism? For example, eugenics seems to have been dropped by the mainstream as a political stance following WW2. Presumably though, the problems at Fukushima will not be enough by themselves to have such a prolonged impact on environmentalism.

    BTW, the Chernobyl fallout found me having a nice walk in the rain along the Pig Track up Snowdon. Does anyone else remember where they were at the time?

  3. Good points, all. (Trying, but without success, to recall where I was in much of spring 1986; possibly in the pub?)

    Now this is what I find ironical. Monbiot/Lynas/Beddington/King et al appear to be arguing thusly:

    1) Look at nuclear’s historical record – we’ve had nuclear power for decades with few problems; actual accidents/fatalities have been extremely rare.

    2) Humans are routinely exposed to high levels of background radiation in ways that have nothing to do with nuclear power stations (radon gas/air travel/hospital X-rays and scans, etc.) – again with few problems. It is important to take an empirical approach and not give way to baseless and irrational fears.

    3) Our opponents are wildly exaggerating past problems/numbers of deaths associated with nuclear, and also wildly exaggerating the future risks of nuclear; they are being irresponsible and alarmist. We shouldn’t act on the fears of the alarmists – the benefits of nuclear power are just too important to be thrown away.

    Instead of nuclear, insert global warming:

    1) Look at the history of climate change – we’ve had about 0.7 degrees C of gentle warming since 1850 or so, with few if any problems directly attributable to this intermittent and mild warming trend.

    2) Weather extremes of all sorts routinely occur (and have always done so); hard evidence that weather events (disastrous or otherwise) are linked to this gentle long-term warming trend, and that the trend itself is directly attributable to man-made CO2 emissions, seems to be vanishingly small/highly contentious/rife with uncertainties. It is important to take an empirical approach and not give way to baseless and irrational fears.

    3) Our opponents are wildly exaggerating past/present problems/numbers of deaths associated with global warming, and also wildly exaggerating the future risks of global warming and the role of man-made CO2; they are being irresponsible and alarmist. We shouldn’t act on the fears of the alarmists – the benefits of cheap energy/economic growth are just too important to be thrown away.

    Monbiot/Lynas/Beddington/King – rationalists when it comes to nuclear but not CAGW?

  4. “…rationalists when it comes to nuclear but not CAGW?”

    Apparently before the PP, models of nuclear waste dumping at sea demonstrated that such dumping was likely to be harmless, which I believe later proved to be over optimistic. Therefore, in also accepting as real the results of the climate models, the establishment is at least being consistent.

  5. As of this year, there are 442 nuclear power plants in operation worldwide with an installed net capacity of ~375GW. This is equivalent to ~14% of world electricity generation.

    65 more reactors are under construction, which will add about another 63GW of installed capacity.

    Since 1951, nuclear has generated 64,600 billion kWh. Most of that came in the last 40 years and most reactors are 20 – 40 years old today.

    If 64,600 billion kWh sounds like a lot of energy, consider that when the operating histories of all currently grid-connected reactors are summed going back 40 years, they total 11,255 years of nuclear generation. The correct figure will be higher as this calculation does not include reactors decommissioned during the last 40 years and the age of each reactor is dated from its actual connection to the grid.

    http://www.iaea.org/cgi-bin/db.page.pl/pris.reaopag.htm

    Yet since the vast majority of reactors came on line in the last 40 years, there have been 18 incidents that merited a rating on the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES). It is important to remember that in operational terms, this is 18 incidents in 11,255 years.

    All bar three were rated as 4 or below on the INES scale (1 = lowest; 7 = highest). An INES rating of 4 is classified as ‘an accident with local consequences’, that is, a minor release of radioactive material unlikely to result in implementation of planned countermeasures other than local food controls.

    The three rated above INES 4 were:

    1979 Three Mile Island (INES rating 5)

    1986 Chernobyl (INES rating 7)

    2011 Fukushima Daiichi (current INES rating 5)

  6. We only give the consumer what they want.

    We hear this statement in the news all the time from representatives of the conglomorations who create the objects that we feel we simply have to have. It is just an excuse for them to decimate the world’s resources so they can line their pockets.

    They perpetuate our addiction through advertising and marketing and we are hooked. Our addiction is growing stronger and rapidly spreading to the devloping world where people are in awe of shiny western lifestyles.

    It is only through our insatiable appetite for these objects that we have ended up needing so much energy. It does not matter whether it is fancy foodstuffs or new gadgets, they are all so unnecessary. We only feel we need them because modern life is otherwise vacant. They mask the true fact that our world is in decline. Environmentally degraded and a lonely place for a human being.

    If people don’t want a nuclear world then they should stop trying to find meaning for the their existence through objects and learn once again how to live selflessly, in harmony with their neighbours.

  7. It is only through our insatiable appetite for these objects that we have ended up needing so much energy. It does not matter whether it is fancy foodstuffs or new gadgets, they are all so unnecessary. We only feel we need them because modern life is otherwise vacant.

    What a load of emotional drivel.

    I have no “insatiable appetite” for objects. What’s more, most of the adults I know don’t either. We like nice things, sure. People have always liked nice things. People who are driven by the need for goods – and there are some – are generally regarded as a bit sad. However, there was no Eden where people didn’t like nice things.

    You enviro-types just don’t like people as they actually are. We need to be better or the world will go to Hell in a handcart.

    There’s been a few attempts to “improve” people along such lines of thinking. They have all ended in rather worse than tears. I want no bar of your attempt, thank-you very much.

    (The bit about “fancy foodstuffs” is a giveaway. What sort of person objects to people liking food? It’a almost obscene the way you recoil from peoples’ pleasure!)

    They mask the true fact that our world is in decline. Environmentally degraded and a lonely place for a human being.

    Demonstrable crap.

    The world is still, mostly, a lovely place. That’s why travel, not goods, is the ultimate desire for many (if not most) people.

    People still have friends and enjoy them you know. In fact, never have so many people grown old in relatively good health and enjoyed their grandchildren – and that includes much of the Third World.

  8. Mooloo,

    The Greens do sometimes make a good point — they have to, as if their ideology was 100% poison it would never be able to amass enough followers to become a serious threat.

    The modern world seems to have lost most of its ability to create beautiful things — the antiques business is proof of this. And it is well known that a majority of the population dislikes modernist architecture.

    A second reasonable point from the Greens is that the suburban car culture which dominates many parts of the industrialized world is stultifying for many people and makes them lonely.

    However, I believe the way to deal with the ugliness of industrial products is to exploit the latest computer-aided manufacturing techniques (thus overcoming the limitations of traditional industry) rather than trying to revert to pre-industrial methods of production, and the solution to the drawbacks of car culture is not to eliminate cars, but to eliminate zoning laws and other restrictions which make our towns and cities hostile to the pedestrian.

  9. George: there is a difference between seeing value in protecting and improving the environment, and a world view that sees the whole world as essentially degraded and corrupt.

    Daniel’s world view, at least as exposed in his comment, is that of an extremist. A 21st century up-date of the 19th Century Nihilists or Medieval Flagellants. His solutions, no doubt, are equally extreme.

    Such extremism is very, very dangerous. When people rise to power with the intention of sweeping away all the filth and renewing the world, the results are uniformly disastrous for those not in the favoured group. Pol Pot thought he was cleansing Cambodia. Savonarola thought he was cleansing Florence. The Saudi religious police try to do the same.

    That other people hold less radical views – including some we might agree with – does not make the extremists any less dangerous. Thus we need to distinguish between “Greens”, and not just think that they are all essentially good people because “they have the world’s best interests at heart”. Some are truly poisonous.

    The modern world seems to have lost most of its ability to create beautiful things

    What it has lost is a commonly agreed set of aesthetic principles. Creation is not the issue, but that we cannot agree what is beautiful. That is unrelated to industrialisation. It arises because we no longer have a self-imposed elite who decide, and then impose by fiat, what the parameters of “beautiful” are. If we return to a “simpler life” we won’t suddenly find we all agree what beauty is. To re-find that we need to return to an aristocracy. No thank you.

    Modern industrialised sites can be ugly, without doubt. But the ugliest cities in the world are the big slums. If we are to make the world’s cities beautiful for the ordinary person, then wealth creation is the key. A return to a “simpler life” will not remove slums.

    BTW: I have to assume you are British. In NZ there is no distrust of modern architecture among the population in general. People who can build new houses do not seek to build them in retro styles. That the British dislike modern architecture says a great deal about the way they approach modernism in general, but it is not a universal trait.

  10. Daniel’s world view, at least as exposed in his comment, is that of an extremist. A 21st century up-date of the 19th Century Nihilists or Medieval Flagellants. His solutions, no doubt, are equally extreme.

    Very true. I agree with you regarding the Saudi Mutawwa, but not regarding Pol Pot. IIRC what happened in Cambodia was that devastating American bombing left the country unable to feed itself, and Pol Pot (motivated by rabid xenophobia) decided to solve the problem by reducing Cambodia’s population, rather than by seeking outside help.

    That other people hold less radical views – including some we might agree with – does not make the extremists any less dangerous. Thus we need to distinguish between “Greens”, and not just think that they are all essentially good people because “they have the world’s best interests at heart”. Some are truly poisonous.

    Agreed.

    What it has lost is a commonly agreed set of aesthetic principles. Creation is not the issue, but that we cannot agree what is beautiful. That is unrelated to industrialisation.

    Are you sure about that? I thought that it was only comparatively recently (with the rise of computers) that it was possible for machine-made products to be comparable in quality with the products of traditional craftsmen. Until then, industrialization had been about sacrificing some degree of quality for the sake of the vastly greater quantity of products that could be produced by industrial methods.

    BTW: I have to assume you are British. In NZ there is no distrust of modern architecture among the population in general. People who can build new houses do not seek to build them in retro styles. That the British dislike modern architecture says a great deal about the way they approach modernism in general, but it is not a universal trait.

    First of all, don’t forget the distinction between modernity (which is a system) and modernism (which is an aesthetic).

    I would argue that the crucial difference in attitudes is because Britain has about 12 times the population of New Zealand in roughly the same land area. The attraction of traditional architecture is that its has geometric properties similar to those of natural things (fractality being one of the primary ones). However, since New Zealanders have more access to actual nature, the aesthetic appeal of the built environment is less important there. Especially, as First World countries with low population densities tend to have especially car-oriented cultures — you can’t appreciate the fine details of traditional architecture very well from inside a moving car.

    This means that the claims made by the advocates of modernism, which associate their preferred style with the indisputed benefits of progress itself, are more likely to be accepted.

  11. Hi George,

    I’m interested in your ‘biophillia’ hypothesis — that natural shapes are somehow resonate with us more deeply than the shapes created by brutal architecture.

    I don’t agree. I enjoy a natural vista as much as anyone, but is it really ‘nature’ that I enjoy, or is it the contrast to my routine? I also really enjoyed visiting New York a few years ago. But what nature is there, apart from the immediate environs of Central Park? I didn’t see any, and yet I felt that it was a beautiful place.

    I’ve seen a number of attempts in recent years to associate social problems that develop in city centres with a dearth of ‘green space’, particularly in London. I don’t see much good science in these attempts, which look more like attempts to give scientific respectability to prejudices and other agendas. There’s a Mind report from 2006, and an RSPB report from the same time, by a Dr Willliam Bird that I’ll try to dig out for you. There was also a claim about an emerging problem of ‘nature deficit disorder’, from one researcher. Again, these all seem like naked attempts to naturalise social problems that we should be very sceptical of.

    I would suggest that the biggest determinant of an individual’s positive or negative experience of brutal architecture is how much cash and opportunity he or she has.

  12. George:

    I thought that it was only comparatively recently (with the rise of computers) that it was possible for machine-made products to be comparable in quality with the products of traditional craftsmen.

    Directly comparable perhaps, in the sense of replicate exactly, but with mass production came the ability to produce of equivalent worth. For a long time elite values held that man-made was better, but that was a value judgement. Eventually people discovered that was just a way for the elite to hold their status, since only they could have the hand-made.

    Nowadays people realise that a machine built table functions as effectively, and can be as beautiful as a man-made one.

    Ben:

    It’s funny that people insist that walks in the park and the countryside are necessary for health, because they are “natural”.

    Nothing could be less natural than a modern park. Really, the whole thing is an artificial construct. The English countryside is truly lovely, but would cease to exist without man keeping it that way.

    Actual natural landscapes have a certain beauty, but it tends to the windswept (if climate is not good) or impenetrable jungle (if climate is more temperate). Until the Romantics came along people feared and despised truly natural landscapes. Love of “nature” is a very modern phenomenon.

    Medieval cities did not have parks. They often had farmed land, orchards etc, but nothing for recreation. For that you had plazas and squares etc.

    So many people with no sense of history.

  13. Mooloo: “So many people with no sense of history.” Agreed – and this is one of the fundamental problems with the green movement, broadly speaking.

    Re biophilia, an internet search with “nature deficit disorder” brings up a mass of articles with phrases like “This term is by no means a medical diagnosis but…” and “Nature Deficit Disorder is one of the newest plagues affecting our homes and our children. The good news, it can be prevented.” No sooner invented, but it becomes a “plague” to be tackled, resisted, combated and prevented!

    Here’s another term for aficionados – “solastalgia”, coined by Professor of Sustainability Glenn Albrecht. Seed Magazine defines it thus: “the inability to derive comfort from one’s home environment due to negative environmental change”.

    “With climate change poised to displace up to a billion people in the next 50 years and alter the home environments of countless others, Albrecht predicts that physical and mental illness related to the environment will increase dramatically.”
    http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/what_is_solastalgia/

    Here’s another good article about solastalgia, which has an interview with Glenn Albrecht himself:
    http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/007906.html

    This quotation made me smile:

    “…the children of today face the double whammy of the escalating pace and scale of changes under the global forces of development and those of climate chaos. I’ve suggested to my own teenagers that what is happening is unacceptable ethically and practically and they should be in a state of advanced revolt about the whole deal.”

  14. Ben Pile:

    I’m interested in your ‘biophillia’ hypothesis — that natural shapes are somehow resonate with us more deeply than the shapes created by brutal architecture.

    I encountered it via Nikos Salingaros. One can note that there are a few pre-modern buildings that were built to simple geometric shapes resembling modern Brutalist structures, but such shapes were only normally used for things like tombs and fortifications when there was a desire to intimidate. An example is this tomb of 10th-century Iranian warlord Amir Qabus ibn Vashmgir — looks eerily like a modern Brutalist building, doesn’t it?

    Mooloo:

    It’s funny that people insist that walks in the park and the countryside are necessary for health, because they are “natural”.

    Nothing could be less natural than a modern park. Really, the whole thing is an artificial construct. The English countryside is truly lovely, but would cease to exist without man keeping it that way.

    Actual natural landscapes have a certain beauty, but it tends to the windswept (if climate is not good) or impenetrable jungle (if climate is more temperate).

    It’s not about whether something is man-made or natural, but about its mathematical properties. Both gardens and traditional buildings tend to have an ordered complexity that makes them beautiful.

    By contrast, a brutalist building has minimal detail (like the windswept landscape), and a deconstructivist building (aargh!) is chaotic (like the impenetrable jungle).

    Incidentally, if modernist architecture is synonymous with progress, why did it only emerge when the industrial revolution was already over a century old? In my view the main factors behind its rise were:

    1) Unprecedentedly rapid rural-to-urban migration in the late 19th century, which trapped millions in filthy and overcrowded slums. One of the selling points of Modernism is that it promised to allow buildings to build far more quickly due to the simpler design, thus allowing swollen urban populations to have decent housing.
    2) Early 20th century notions of health care, specifically belief in the beneficial effects of sunlight and fresh air. Paul Overy’s Light, Air and Openness: Modern Architecture Between the Wars looks at this in more detail. The Spanish Flu probably intensified this driver.
    3) A general desire to turn one’s back on the old world order that led to World War I.

    Medieval cities did not have parks. They often had farmed land, orchards etc, but nothing for recreation. For that you had plazas and squares etc.

    One could argue that green space in modern cities is an attempt to compensate for the negative aspects of cars. Medieval cities didn’t have cars, and therefore didn’t need much if any greenery around.

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