Monday, April 4, 2011

Nuclear risk and poker

General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt, who was recently appointed by the President to head his Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, defended the nuclear power industry while in Japan this week. When asked by a reporter if the Fukushima incident would cause global concern about nuclear safety he replied:

"This is an industry that's had an extremely safe track record for more than 40 years. We have had more than 1,000 engineers working around the clock since the incident began and we will continue in the short, medium and long term working with TEPCO due to this horrific natural disaster."

Immelt's logic is very peculiar. The effects of this nuclear disaster will be felt in Japan and throughout the world for a good deal longer than 40 years. Is it then OK to have such a disaster every 40 years? How bad a disaster can we afford to have every 40 years? The land around Chernobyl will be uninhabitable for another century at least. Hundreds died there, and more died later and are still dying.

Many years ago, when I first started playing poker, someone made the following point about risk. Suppose, he said, that you hold a pretty strong hand -- say a full house -- in a simple game of draw poker (nothing wild). It's a limited stakes game, so you bet the limit -- say $20. You have one opponent, who calls your bet and raises $20. There are certainly hands that will beat you, but they are not very likely in such a game. So you see the raise -- maybe even raise again. Now suppose we have the same situation, but with unlimited stakes. You bet your $20 but your opponent raises you $20,000. Now what do you do? The odds haven't changed but your problem has changed radically.

So it is with power plants. The stakes are simply higher if yours is a nuclear plant than if it is a wind farm. A safety record of 40 years is not a good enough hand at these stakes.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr. Bridger
    I found your blog via the Winning Progressive and rather enjoy your insights, agreeing in general. However I disagree with your view on Nuclear energy. Unfortunately with 6.5 billion population and an ever growing appetite for electrical power (just about to get much larger with electric cars)nukes are a necessity and we must have more and quickly.
    Wind, solar, tidal, etc are good and should be promoted and built but these sources will never be base load generators. Only thing in the future - very distant future- that can replace current base load generators such as coal, natural gas, and nukes is fusion. Most "experts" think that fusion is at least 50+ years away, at which time the population will be 10 billion or much higher. That is of course if by that time we have not fouled our nest so much that we are extinct.

    Everyone brings up Chernobyl as an example of the dangers of nukes. Chernobyl was due to very bad engineering, a common malady of the Soviet society. Even at that, the death toll was very modest compared to the annual death toll from coal mining, from chemical plant explosions, drilling rig explosions, etc. We do not know yet all the facts about the Japanese disaster nor the final damage picture but certainly the main factor was the tsunami. Should and could the facility have been designed to avoid or minimize the problems? Probably yes. But can one make a nuke or anything for that matter such as chemical plants, cars, airplanes, buildings safe? Please define safe? How safe? Safe from impact of a tsunami? Probably. Safe from the impact from a meteor? No. The World Trade Center buildings were designed to withstand the impact of a stray airliner but not one fully loaded with fuel purposefully flown into it. Can cars be made 100% safe? Of course not because one cannot design them to be idiot proof, although some progress to this end is being made by some of the high end cars. Nukes are necessary to minimize ongoing damage to the environment from coal fired plants and we have to ensure that they are as safe as practicable.