Taking a Mile or Three

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

One unfortunate consequence of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has been the fact that the environmental movement and other fans of central planning (in the form of government regulations on business) have been more than happy to use it as fodder in their unrelenting war against industrial civilization. Case in point: The Obama Administration's (recently overturned) moratorium on offshore drilling below 500 feet, which is generally safer at shallower depths than the mile at which this accident occurred.

And now, just as some elements within the environmentalist movement seemed to have become friendlier to the idea of nuclear power, even that energy option is now catching flak again. Mark Gimein, writing for The Big Money (via Slate), uses the spill to tar nuclear power, warning "about our propensity to underestimate the chances of 'low probability, high cost events.'"

Gimein's infatuation with worst-case scenarios may be fashionable, but it is both philosophically and factually wrong. On the latter score, consider his argument against nuclear power:

I've been wary of jumping on the Black Swan bandwagon because people who go around thinking of worst-case possibilities tend to overcount the cost of worst-case events (when markets collapse, the world doesn't end). But when it comes to nuclear failure, though, the cost of failure really is incalculable. Bad as the Deepwater Horizon spill is, it is nothing next to the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, which has left close to 1,100 square miles surrounding the Chernobyl reactor uninhabitable to this day.


Deepwater Horizon brings those low probability, high-cost events close. The near meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant did a lot to sour Americans on nuclear power, but Three Mile Island was a disaster that didn't happen. The safety systems and protocols worked. The plant shut down. The core didn't melt.

On the Deepwater Horizon well, the safety systems didn't work. ... [minor format edits]
Gimein fails to mention not only the predictable disastrous consequences of men not pursuing economically viable sources of energy, but also the following facts: (1) Safety devices not even installed, as with the Deepwater well simply can't work. (2) The kind of severe accident that happened at Chernobyl is physically impossible with the types of nuclear reactors used for power generation in America. (Regarding the Three Mile Island accident he implies to be similar to Chernobyl, there is an interesting discussion of "meltdowns" here.) (3) Even in the Cheronbyl disaster, radiation would not have been released had American containment practices been in place! There are others, but I think I've made my point.

When Frank Furedi called worst-case thinking "an act of imagination," he wasn't whistling Dixie.

-- CAV

P.S.: Via HBL, Ron Pisaturo has an excellent blog posting about a capitalist solution to the oil spill.


Mike said...

Thanks for these last couple of posts about risk-based calculations and decision-making. It's kind of dry stuff, but this is the foundation upon which approaches to other problems rest, so it's really important that any liberty-minded person understand it.

Given the opportunity, the statists would gladly let big government be our nannies and relegate us to an isolated playpen. Good little manageable tax cows for the elites to feed upon.

Word verification: "Terla." That would have rocked, but for the swapping of one letter...

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Mike. The topic first got my attention some time ago, when someone told me something I strongly disagreed with to the point of being angry. I wasn't completely sure sure why I was angry, so I tried to figure out why. While doing so, I realized that I was reacting to what I thought this person was doing -- and then realized that I do see exactly that phenomenon (worst-case thinking) all over the place.

Mo said...

appreciate those posts Gus. Now I Will go off and write a summary

Gus Van Horn said...