What risk is enough?

Nulear power arises as a major example of the risk calculation.  Odds are that a nuclear power plant will work forever without any extreme or catastrophic incidents.  However, if something goes wrong, it goes very, very wrong as we have seen at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi.  Today, the plant is surrounded by The Zone, just like in the Russian movie “The Stalker“.

Image from the Stalker

What lesser risks are still acceptable from our power generation?  I’m ready to cede migratory bird puree as a necessary evil – are you?  (I say this largely because more birds have been killed by coal-fired power plants – and cats – than any wind turbines.)   The textbook I assigned my class has a large graphic that measures the environmental impact of various side effects of energy generation from various fuel sources against the severity and likelihood of problems happening (1).  For coal, global climate change impacts rise to the top of the pack as being both very severe and highly likely.  However, the effects of lead, mercury, arsenic, and other discharges are marked as having very marginal effects in neurological health, particularly among children.  However, these effects are highly likely, especially for fish-eaters, and we know how to fix them.

The chart above says don’t eat any caught fish other than mackerel.   Most bought fish look low in mercury, but you should limit your consumption to less than once per week for the first 6.  

We may have to balance these problems when we have limited money and time to fix the problems – but this balance makes me very uneasy.  For coal, I know the authors are trying to bring attention to impacts that are often ignored because of the very high costs for their remedy.  However, it minimizes very real effects that we can (and should) fix right now.  How do we create a fair, just, and reasonable list of priorities to tackle the work that lies before us?

What we do right now is place the burden on the individual.  I need to research and see how much of which kind of fish I’m comfortable eating.  If I own crop or forest land, I have to budget for productivity losses caused by ozone.  I plan my vacation to avoid polluted places like the Blue Ridge Parkway.  I hope I have enough money and power to avoid living near the power plant with its noise, ugliness, and damage to household items through particulates.

Somehow, this individual maximum-utility balancing doesn’t seem to make much sense – it misses the larger scale.  We rely too much on individual change when only societal change can make a difference.

(1) Lee, R. (2002) Environmental impacts of energy use, Chapter 3 in Energy: Science, Policy, andthe Pursuit of Sustainability, Robert Bent, Lloyd Orr and Randall Baker (eds.) Washington, DC: Island Press.