Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Earthquakes, tsunami and nuclear power: behavioral economics

The following are quick reactions, not tight argumentation.
At a forum on the earthquake today at Washington and Lee I was surprised by the interest in nuclear issues as opposed to the quake and its direct impact on people and the economy. So far no one has been hospitalized for radiation exposure; outside the plant levels remain below those that cause significant public health concerns as long as they are not permanent. And there's no sign of a Chernobyl type incident that would poison large swaths of the archipelago. The inside of the plant may be a different story, but since the reactors will never be restarted that's not a substantive issue. In the end, the most likely scenario is thus that no one will be made ill by the reactor problems. Ever. Nor will there be long-standing economic repercussions. And that is ironic if we think of the routine but small-scale disasters that accompany coal mining (most well out of view of video cameras) and the known impact of particulate matter and acid rain, or even the rarer but still frequent level of industrial accidents in petroleum extraction -- and then there's carbon footprint. Nuclear power does not make sense from a financial perspective; it is not cheap power. But it is safer and does make environmental sense compared to the alternatives.
Meanwhile people in the earthquake zone continue to die because of exposure, malnutrition and lack of access to needed healthcare. Virtually all (if not all) of these deaths are of the elderly, particularly those with chronic health issues. But they are far from zero. In addition, people will die because of the rolling power blackouts, due to an increase in accidents and delays in emergency services (which would be an issue even if none of Japan's plants were nuclear ones).
Even stranger, this nuclear issue seems to have drowned out the unfolding tale of roads being made passable, power lines reconnected and food being delivered. That causes no fear reaction, and so leads to none adrenalin rush that can come from sound-and-sight bites on the news. Yet the story has drama, particularly as any single scene is being replicated across a wide swath of Japan.
It even seems to have drowned out the story of 22,000 dead and missing, a number that surely will rise to over 30,000. It saddens me that people are forgetting that in their fascination over nuclear plants.
We cannot build human society trying to protect ourselves from every conceivable disaster. Earthquakes of M9 near densely settled populations are one such; it may be a generation before there is a recurrence, and tens of generations before there is a recurrence in Japan. But M7 earthquakes (1/60th the size of the Tohoku quake) are not so infrequent, and if they occur near an urban center (as did the 1995 Kobe earthquake of M6.9) are horrific enough.
They are a threat worth evaluating. Furthermore, we know how to build so as to mitigate the impact (including any associated tsunami) of earthquakes of M8 and below. Japan has done that. We need to recognize that the shake-resistant construction, the ocean-side seawalls and sirens, the emergency drills, and the disaster response infrastructure all saved untold lives. Indeed, in a "normal" earthquake disaster Japan would have seen neither a major loss of life nor even a long-lasting economic disruption to the affected region. Unfortunately the areas of the US similarly at risk – the west coast in general and California in particular; the Mississippi valley south of St. Louis; and Charleston SC – are ill-prepared. The demand for an adrenalin rush from the nightly news makes that response less likely.

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