Nuclear Power Risks and the Optimism Bias

Psychology professor Tali Shalot writes in The Optimism Bias that 80% of humanity has an irrational positive bias toward themselves and their families. It is likely to be an adaptation that helped us survive because she finds that this bias increases the probability that we will obtain our goals. In contrast, a bias toward pessimism is associated with depression.
Most people rate themselves as above average in several traits such as driving ability, appearance, intelligence, likability and, of course, modesty. They think their own children are above average in many ways as well. Newlyweds know that 40% of marriages end in divorce, but they think that theirs will not. People have these biases toward themselves even if they are pessimistic about other people or society in general. Life would grind to a halt without this bias. This optimism bias is advantageous in maintaining emotional resilience and obtaining goals, but there are definitely situations, especially for people with heavy responsibilities in leading nations or managing dangerous technology, in which this bias can be disastrous. Evolution did not prepare us to be nuclear plant managers, so our built-in cognitive wiring for risk assessment is unreliable and must in many circumstances be over-ruled by the power of reason.
The Japanese nuclear industry and its regulators were definitely blinded by complacency, fear of career setbacks, fear of financial losses, and optimism bias in the years leading up to the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe. Everyone knew that recent information about seismic and tsunami risks required a reassessment of the original assumptions about the safety of nuclear plants, but decisions about the necessary upgrades were put off in the hopeful belief that the problems would be solved before disaster struck. They erroneously thought that it probably wouldn't happen in the near future, but a rational study of the probabilities reveals the counter-intuitive finding that the farther you look into the future, the lower the probability of an event occurring.
In The Better Angels of our Nature, (p.202-203) Steven Pinker discusses the inability 1,000 research subjects to correctly understand the probability of an event happening in the future. In the problem discussed, the probability of lightning striking a home is given as once a month. People can understand that the probability of lightning striking the home tomorrow is 0.03 (1/30 days of the month). However, when subjects were asked to state the probability of lightning striking 2, 3 or 4 days into the future, most people said the probability was the same or higher. They were unable to see that there was a decreasing likelihood of many days passing without a lightning strike. The probability goes down the farther you consider into the future. The lowest probability is that 29 days will pass without a lightning strike and lightning will hit on the 30th day from now. Of course, when you wake up tomorrow it is a new “today, so the calculation resets, but from the perspective of today, tomorrow is the day with the highest probability of a lightning strike. 
The probabilities are perhaps easier to understand with the last day of the month as the reference point for the present. If 29 days have passed without a lightning strike, the likelihood of a lightning strike today is 100%.These insights should tell safety engineers that the time to act on mitigating a risk is right now. The greatest error is to kick the can down the road on the assumption that it probably won’t happen anytime soon. Other common mistakes are to think that the risk assessment is flawed and to hope that new research done with favorable methodology will provide a reason for inaction and not spending money on the problem.
The optimism bias messes with our estimations of probability and makes us think highly unlikely bad things won’t happen, but think highly unlikely good things will happen. If every year there is a 1/1,000 chance that a mega-tsunami will destroy the cooling system of a nuclear power plant, the operator concludes that there is no urgency because it probably won’t happen this year. On the other hand, if the workers at the power plant see advertisements that the state lottery jackpot is getting very large, they will buy more lottery tickets than usual. They know that millions of people are doing the same thing, more tickets are being sold, and the probability of winning is becoming exceedingly small, but they buy tickets anyway. These are two low-probability, high-impact scenarios, but the irrational decisions about them differ because the impact of the former is unfavorable and the impact of the latter is favorable.

Finally, from a certain perspective, probabilities are meaningless numbers. Gamblers don’t care about the odds stacked against them as long as they might win the next round. When risk increases by factors of 10, at what point does the risk become unacceptable? Whether the probability is 1/100, 1/1,000 or 1/10,000, the impact of the unwanted event may be nasty enough to render the difference meaningless. Regardless of the probabilities of the event occurring, the only thing that matters is that it can happen tomorrow.
So now think about the present and future risk to nuclear power plants, based on lessons learned from the Fukushima catastrophe. A whistleblower at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently spoke to journalists regarding his concerns about the Oconee Nuclear Power Plant in South Carolina being destroyed by a dam failure:

"The probability of Jocassee Dam catastrophically failing is hundreds of times greater than a 51-foot wall of water hitting Fukushima Daiichi. And, like the tsunami in Japan, the man-made 'tsunami' resulting from the failure of the Jocassee Dam will - with absolute certainty - result in the failure of three reactor plants along with their containment structures. Although it is not a given that Jocassee Dam will fail in the next 20 years, it is a given that if it does fail, the three reactor plants will melt down and release their radionuclides into the environment."

In hindsight we can all say that TEPCO or Japanese regulators should have shut down Fukushima Daiichi and built better seawalls and backup power systems, but if the probability of dam failure in South Carolina is higher than the tsunami risk was at Fukushima, it follows that the correct foresight regarding the Oconee plant is that it should be shut down immediately until the risk can be eliminated. The dam could fail tomorrow. The same conclusion could be made about the risk posed by earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes at many other nuclear plants. The nuclear industry has spoken a lot about lessons learned from the Fukushima nightmare, but if another catastrophe occurs because of a risk ignored, the public will conclude that nothing was learned.

Further reading:

Environment News Service 23 Nuclear Power Plants at High Risk of Tsunami. September 24, 2012


Prognosticating the Cost of Energy in 2030

Business leaders in Japan argue that abandoning nuclear power could lead to corporations moving overseas. 
Another nuclear disaster could lead to 120,000,000 Japanese citizens wanting to do the same.

Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Facility, Aomori Prefecture, Japan

The Democratic Party of Japan has announced that it will commit to a phase out of nuclear power by the year 2030, but they announced the next day that construction can resume on two new plants that could be permitted to run until 2050. The two announcements were contradictory, and anti-nuclear activists suspect a cynical ploy to win the next election. The majority of the public wants to be nuclear free, so the political prize up for grabs is obvious. After the election, and as time goes on, the policy could shift in any direction. Nonetheless, the nuclear industry and other business groups are taking the announcement seriously, just in case Prime Minister Noda might really be serious about what he is pledging. The battle to frighten and confuse the public has begun.
The Mainichi reports business groups saying that if Japan abandons nuclear power by 2030, the average monthly energy bill for multi-person households would swell to 32,243 yen, compared with 16,900 yen in 2010 - as if anyone could know how much a liter of gasoline or a kilogram of enriched uranium will be worth, in Japanese currency, eighteen years from now! Are they really that stupid, or do they just think the general public is that stupid?
For the record, I live in a “multi-person” household of five people, and our average monthly bill is about 9,200 yen, and that includes heat, air conditioning, hot water and cooking. With a solar panel on the roof, we sell back to TEPCO about 1/3 of the amount we consume. We conserve a lot, seldom use the air conditioning, and get by without suffering too much. Japanese electricity consumers have a lot of room to make future gains in efficiency and benefit from new energy technologies. One reason the figure of 16,900 yen is so high is that so many Japanese families live in un-insulated, poorly-made homes that devalue as fast as cars. A rational energy policy would also be a rational housing policy.

Who can predict what will happen to currency by 2030?

The more dubious claim is in the threat of businesses to relocate. Japan is in steep demographic decline and deindustrialization has been happening for a long time, and these trends were sure to continue with or without a nuclear disaster and a shift away from nuclear energy. Energy consumption will decline regardless of energy policy. Japan has been doing massive deficit spending for a long time, and when it is done borrowing money from domestic savers, it will have to borrow on the international market, at which time the world’s third largest economy could become the next Greece. It is extremely disingenuous for these business groups to cry that the sky is falling now just because the country will have to gradually replace the source of 30% of its electricity. These protestations are more likely to be rooted in the fear of losses within the nuclear industry. Furthermore, businesses that make the threat to relocate easily forget that any place they might go to can be struck with its own costly problems. Honda, for example, built a big operation in Bangkok only to see it submerged in the great flood of 2011, and Panasonic is presently seeing a plant in China attacked by a mob protesting Japan's claim to the Senkaku Islands.
Another false argument that has arisen is in the cries of foul over the Rokkasho nuclear waste facility in Aomori Prefecture. Decades ago the prefectural government agreed to host a nuclear waste reprocessing facility there with the understanding that the Rokkasho site would not be for permanent storage. Waste would come in, be reprocessed into MOX fuel (a blend of plutonium and uranium) and then be sent out as fuel for nuclear reactors. The domestic technology for reprocessing never worked, so fuel had to be shipped to Britain and France for reprocessing then reimported. The entire plan was a miserable failure even before the Fukushima meltdowns, but now that the nuclear phase out has been announced, the governor of the prefecture feels betrayed. Aomori’s irrational protest consists of telling the rest of Japan that it must continue with nuclear energy because Aomori doesn’t want to store the waste product of nuclear energy. It’s good for you but bad for us. However, safety may be the least of their concerns. Kazuaki Nagata in the Japan Times reports, "These areas stand to lose huge government subsidies if the fuel cycle spigot is turned off." 
One can sympathize, but only to the extent one sympathizes with a young woman who got pregnant before her fiancé skipped town. Aomori was warned about the false promise of nuclear waste storage and reprocessing. The dangers were known. Activists tried to stop it, but local and prefectural politicians were seduced by the false promises of national politicians and corporations. It is too late to complain about this situation now. Aomori’s problem just underlines how critical it is for Japan to completely stop creating more nuclear waste. Temporary storage is full and extremely dangerous, and there is no long-term solution.

They hate to say, "I told you so."

Further argument about the costs of continuing with nuclear energy appears in the list below. It borrows some phrasing and arguments from the organization Don’t Nuke the Climate, while I’ve added extra commentary to some of the points.

1. In order to prevent the worst effects of climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. Industrialized countries, the main producers of greenhouse gas emissions, must reduce their emissions by 40% by 2020. It takes about a decade to build one single reactor, so the nuclear option is definitely no answer to the urgency of the fight against climate change. Nuclear energy only amounts to 2.4% of global energy use. It is a very marginal energy, and even the practically impossible goal of doubling capacity would make little difference while increasing environmental hazards and imposing costs that could be spent on better projects.
2. Reactor meltdowns have devastating economic and health impacts. No private insurers want to cover this risk. Ultimately, governments must compensate for damages, but full justice for the people affected could be enough to bankrupt a nation.
3. Private nuclear operators benefit from enormous public subsidies, direct and indirect, without which they could not commission a nuclear reactor. Nuclear projects cannot be privately financed. Future costs and liabilities are too uncertain for private capital, so all new construction requires massive state support, such as the federal loan guarantees promised for the nuclear plant under construction in Georgia, USA.
4. 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by sectors of the economy which don’t depend on electricity. The nuclear option is therefore irrelevant for those sectors. Some nuclear advocates say that nuclear could play a role in replacing gasoline if it were used to create hydrogen fuel or power electric vehicles. Yet it is unlikely that uranium supplies could increase enough, and nuclear generating capacity expand enough, to make a significant difference in reducing consumption of fossil fuels.
5. Nuclear energy is not necessary to reduce greenhouse emissions. Increased energy efficiency and investment in certain types of renewable energies can reduce greenhouse emissions. A solution is at hand for the intermittency (energy storage) problem.
6. Nuclear energy has a carbon footprint. Power plants are often shut down for maintenance and repair – sometimes for very long periods while their safety is under review. Southern California Edison is presently billing its customers $54 million per month for the cost of maintaining the idled San Onofre Plant. During down time, energy is used to cool reactors and spent fuel pools. When a plant is decommissioned, more energy has to be expended in a process that lasts many years. Carbon fuels are burned in mining uranium and transporting it. Enriching uranium requires large energy inputs, many of them used for heat dissipation. The cooling machinery releases CFC gasses (permitted by the Montreal Protocol!) which have a large global warming impact. As time goes on, the quality of available uranium ore decreases, requiring more energy inputs to extract the same energy output of the better ores of yesteryear.
7. Since 1974, the OECD countries have officially committed 55% of their energy research budgets to nuclear energy, i.e. 250 billion dollars. One has to wonder if the world would be better off if more of this money had been spent on developing energy alternatives.
8. The future costs of decommissioning nuclear power plants and managing radioactive waste will reach hundreds of billions of dollars. It is dubious to claim that abandoning nuclear energy will lead to more expensive energy in the future. No one can predict the cost of energy ten or twenty years from now because there are too many uncertainties regarding climate change, technological developments, shifting economic fortunes of countries, political upheaval and the occurrence of high risk, low probability events (like the earthquake–tsunami-meltdown of 2011/03/11) which can suddenly negate all assumptions.
9. There is little assurance to be taken from the thirty-five year record of major nuclear power plant accidents. Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima were horrible, but one might be tempted to say that the world carried on anyway. However, these three disasters could have been much worse if things had gone a little differently. They are better looked at as warning shots over the bow that we should be reacting to. Many reactors in the U.S. don’t have the good containment dome that saved TMI from being much worse than it was. A second, much worse explosion at Chernobyl was averted in the early days of the crisis. That explosion could have left Western Europe uninhabitable. 80% of Fukushima fallout blew out over the ocean only because the wind was blowing to the northeast. If the spent fuel fire at reactor 4 had not been controlled, Tokyo would be uninhabited today. There is no reason to take comfort from the way these accidents turned out. As bad as they were, none of them was the worst accident that is possible.
10. All assessments of nuclear energy’s appropriate role in the energy mix would be cancelled by a major accident in the US or Western Europe. In these countries, there are stronger democratic, legal and media institutions, and the public would just not have as much tolerance for the official contempt for victims that occurred in Fukushima and Chernobyl. And the hazards are real. A risk engineer from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently told a journalist, “The probability of Jocassee Dam [upstream from the Oconee NPP in South Carolina] catastrophically failing is hundreds of times greater than a 51 foot wall of water hitting Fukushima Daiichi. And, like the tsunami in Japan, the man-made 'tsunami' resulting from the failure of the Jocassee Dam will - with absolute certainty - result in the failure of three reactor plants along with their containment structures.
11. The hotter the weather, the more unsafe it becomes to operate power plants: 1/4 of French nuclear reactors had to be shut down in 2003 because of the summer heat wave.
12. As climate changes, droughts and flooding become more frequent. Yet the production of nuclear energy requires 25,000 times more water per kWh than wind or solar energy. Coal, gas and oil generators require cooling also, and, of course, hydroelectric facilities are dependent on a stable flow of water. Climate change brings heightened risks to many forms of electricity generation.
13. It’s too late to speak of a solution to the nuclear waste storage problem. The waste has been created and there is nowhere to put it. Radioactive waste remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. There is no solution to prevent radioactive substances from leaking into the environment. All we can do now is stop adding to the pile and find the least bad way to handle what exists.
14. More reactors mean more equipment and more nuclear material spreading across the world.
15. The real solutions to fight climate change exist: energy efficiency, energy saving, increase in renewable energies…fighting deforestation, transition towards sustainable farming, economic re-localization, etc… This may not seem like a desirable “solution” because it will mean living with less and recognizing that the laws of physics impose their own rules on economic growth. Neither science nor religion promised us air conditioning.

For the opposing point of view, read the arguments of an Indy race car driver who has been bought and paid for by French nuclear giant Areva. The industry’s prospects look grim if this is what it has to resort to in order to find the next generation of nuclear engineers.

More background on Japan's stalled nuclear fuel recycling dreams:

Kazuaki Nagata. "Vicious nuclear fuel cycle proving difficult to break." The Japan Times. September 18, 2012.

Stephen Hesse. Japan's Nuclear Phase Out: Is it all Smoke and Mirrors? The Japan Times. September 23, 2012.


Lessons Not Learned

Tsunami waves inundate the Fukushima Daiichi NPP

The Mainichi Newspaper reported on September 6, 2012 that the Hokuriku Electric Power Company has refused a request by the Social Democratic Party leader for a visit to the Shika Nuclear Power Plant. A representative told the newspaper, “We determined that those who don't understand the necessity of nuclear plants are low on our priority list.”
International and domestic governments, regulatory agencies and power utilities have consistently boasted about the “lessons learned” from the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant catastrophe, but this statement by the representative of Hokuriku Electric illustrates that perhaps nothing has been learned.
Who knew that a tsunami could topple protective barriers, and be large enough to flood a nuclear power plant and disable its backup power systems? Who knew that the preceding earthquake could knock out the main power supply and fatally damage the reactors even before the tsunami hit? Apparently, no one knew, if you listen to the excuses of the electric utilities in Japan. Their standard response, at least for the first few weeks after the meltdowns, was that the natural disaster was beyond all expectation and outside of all risks determined by scientific and historical knowledge.
However, these excuses soon became laughable, as it was revealed that people within Japan’s nuclear village had simply refused to listen to critics and educate themselves about facts in other fields of inquiry. It turned out that many people knew about the high probability of the earthquake-tsunami-meltdown syndrome. They warned their fellow citizens for decades and no one listened. The inescapable conclusion, the lesson to be learned, is that 160,000 evacuees would still be in their homes, TEPCO would still be a financially viable company, and the global nuclear industry would have a much better reputation if the nuclear village had listened to its most despised critics – the kinds of people who “don’t understand the necessity of nuclear power plants.” 
The statement by the Hokuriku Electric representative shows precisely the rigid, uncreative mentality that led to disaster. A wiser person would refrain from stating that there is a “necessity of nuclear power” because what is a necessity is a value judgment to be determined by others. Judgments about necessity depend on who is getting the benefits and who is paying the costs. People who operate nuclear power plants have many responsibilities, but the promotion of specific energy policy for the nation is not one of them.
Hokuriku Electric, like TEPCO, has a disgraceful safety record that calls for a little more humility when requests for visits come from critics. There was a criticality incident at the Shika plant in 1999, but it was covered up until 2007. Reactor 1 was shut down for two years, and the subsequent investigation by the Japan Nuclear Safety Commission concluded that the cause was cost-cutting pressures on staff. Since the Fukushima disaster, all reactors have been shut down while larger seawalls are built and seismic safety is reassessed. According to existing rules about building nuclear reactors on active fault lines, the plant may have to be shut down permanently because new evidence shows that a fault line previously thought to be inactive is now more likely to be active.
TEPCO shows that it too has learned nothing from its mistakes. No matter how many times critics point out the blatant failure to take account of the historical record of tsunami height in the Pacific Rim, TEPCO still stood by its past assessments as recently as April 2012 in a report titled The scale of the tsunami far exceeded all previously held expectations and knowledge. The report concedes that the giant Jogan tsunami of 869 was higher than the design basis of Fukushima NPP, but it splits hairs by noting that studies of this tsunami’s deposits showed a large wave hit the Sendai Plain and the Ishinomaki Plain, and a four-meter wave did hit in Northern Fukushima, but there were no tsunami deposits in the area of the Fukushima NPP. Thus, TEPCO wants to say that because the monster tsunami of 1,200 years ago did massive damage only a hundred kilometers north of Fukushima, it was reasonable to conclude that the next monster tsunami would strike with exactly the same pattern. The question how could we have known? invites the question how could a person of modest intelligence not have known?
If it was too difficult for planners in Japan’s nuclear village to think all the way back to the year 869, they could have checked Wikipedia to get a rough idea of tsunami waves that have occurred recently in the Pacific Rim:

1964, Alaska, 30 m
1993, Hokkaido, 30 m
1998, New Guinea, 15 m
2004, Indian Ocean, 33 m
2007, Solomon Islands, 12 m
2009, Samoa, 14 m
2011, Northeastern Japan, 10-30 m

Later, in 2002, the JSCE published a guideline called the "Tsunami Assessment Method for Nuclear Power Plants in Japan" based on the ongoing technological progress. In this assessment, simulation technology was applied and the results were assumed to be more conservative. Based on this guideline, TEPCO reevaluated the tsunami height, which was assessed to be approx. 6 m. In response to the results, TEPCO has voluntarily implemented measures while reporting them to the government. This tsunami evaluation technology has been the standard method for domestic nuclear power plants up to the time of the accident and is also used for assessing tsunamis at nuclear power plants all around Japan to report to the government including the ones located along the Pacific coastline.
Although TEPCO believed that the nuclear power plant safeguards put in place were sufficient per this standard, we deeply regret the accident that occurred on March 11th.


When Dreams Come True

In 1990, the Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa released his film Dreams toward the end of his long career. The aim of the project was to put on film some of the vivid dreams he could recall from his lifetime. The dreams depicted are joined by a common theme of man's relationship to his environment, but otherwise this is a collection of short stories. The film was made in the years immediately after the Chernobyl catastrophe when both the Japanese anti-nuclear movement and nuclear industry were expanding rapidly. Perhaps because it had a strongly anti-nuclear message in the latter part of the film, Kurosawa found it impossible to raise the funding for production. It was Steven Spielberg who helped arrange backing through Warner Brothers.
The film received mixed reviews at the time, and it is likely that no one expected the unconventional, surrealistic concept to be a blockbuster. Regardless of whether you like the film, one of its segments takes on new significance in the post-Fukushima era. The segment titled Mount Fuji in Red depicts the eruption of Mount Fuji which subsequently causes multiple meltdowns at a nearby nuclear power plant (which would be the now idled “time bomb” called the Hamaoka Nuclear Power Plant in Shizuoka prefecture.) The dream follows two men, a mother and her two children as they flee toward the sea where panicking refugees are throwing themselves into the ocean like lemmings. The dream consists of dark humor and illogic (color coded clouds of radionuclides), which might tempt the literal minded to dismiss it as nonsense, but, in case it needs to be pointed out, the artist was trying to get at an underlying truth.
Some reviewers at the time were withering in their comments:

Time Out London: Not a little reactionary, the film's main achievement is to show a once impressive director quite out of touch both with the world and with developments in cinema. Much of it is like a moron's guide to the Green manifesto, transforming serious issues into banal trivia...

Heroic Cinema: Kurosawa’s message here is as subtle as a brick: humanity is spoiling the world, with pollution, consumerism and ignorance.

Entertainment Weekly: The picture devolves into a series of obscure, finger-wagging lectures on the subjects of nuclear war, pollution, etc. Even for those seeking faint echoes of Kurosawa's greatness, Dreams, I'm afraid, is a dud.

The Washington Post: "Pontifications" might have served as a more accurate header. Or better yet, "Sermons."... There's so much uninflected, cautionary preaching, with so much sage advice being passed down, that you begin to feel as if you're watching some sort of epic after-school special.

At the time, it might have seemed over-the-top and hysterical to preach about a geological event triggering a nuclear meltdown, but now, not so much. Now that it has happened, and now that the destabilizing effects of climate change are plain to see, the visions and warnings of "scientifically illiterate" artists of the past don't seem so easy to sneer at. Tsunamis, massive earthquakes, floods and drought are real threats to the world's 400 nuclear power plants. (For another work of art worthy of mention here, go to The Talking Heads' Nothing But Flowers, which appeared about the same time as Dreams.)
A four-minute segment of Mount Fuji in Red can be seen here on Vimeo.com but it may not last. Hopefully, Warner Brothers will consider it fair use for review such as this, and beneficial promotion for an old film in their catalog. If you can't view the video, the next best thing is to see the storyboard series of photos below.