A Tragically Warped View

[UPDATE: In the comments, Kate Sheppard has responded to this post, saying that I (and William Connolley) have “grossly misconstrued” what she wrote in her Guardian article. Here is my explanation and apology to Kate.]

In an article about the nuclear implications of this week’s East Coast earthquake, Kate Sheppard writes:

We had a pretty good warning earlier this year, when the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused an even bigger tragedy when the Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown.

Anybody spot the problem? William Connolley did and he’s all over it:

The tsunami killed 20k people, or whatever. Fukushima killed no-one, directly, though it wouldn’t be surprising if it kills a few eventually. So why was Fukushima an “even bigger tragedy”?

Because nuclear power is still a bogeyman to progressives. Many also break out into a cold sweat over genetically modified foods. Nothing anti-science about these positions, right?

22 Responses to “A Tragically Warped View”

  1. To be fair it was Timmy who spotted it first: http://timworstall.com/2011/08/25/please-go-and-get-a-dictionary-you-fool/. I did say that, quietly.

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    Fair enough. I’ll put an update in the post, though for some reason the link to his post is not connecting at the moment.

  3. BobN says:

    Perhaps what she was trying to say was “the enormous tragedy was further excerbated when Fukushima suffered a meltdown”, but as written it comes off has idiotic.  And yes, I noted the problem the second I read it.

  4. bigcitylib says:

    I think #3 is what is meant.  It was a big tragedy; the meltdown made it bigger.  Not that the traedy of the tsunami caused an even bigger tragedy (the meltdown).  Its not well written, but not that unclear.

  5. RickA says:

    I don’t think what happened at Fukushima is all that scary.

    Its an easy fix.

    Make sure your backup power transformers are high enough above sea level (I believe just about 30 feet higher would have been enough at Fukushima) and more battery backup just in case your backup transformers are fried. 

    Passive cooling designs should eliminate this problem completely.

    I hope nuclear is still on the table as a green power solution, but only time will tell. 

  6. Keith Kloor says:

    @ 3, 4:

    In rereading the passage, I can see the validity to your interpretation. To clear this up, I’ve emailed Kate and asked her to clarify.

  7. Kate Sheppard says:

    Both of you have grossly misconstrued what I wrote. If you read the actual piece at The Guardian, my point was that we need to think about emergency preparedness. In the case of Japan, you took a country that had already suffered multiple catastrophes in an earthquake and tsunami, and then compounded it with the need for a rather large evacuation, not to mention sucking emergency response capacity to handle yet another problem.

    My point was that in the US, we saw an earthquake far stronger than many anticipated, which was too close for comfort to the design capability of some nuclear plants for comfort. Moreover, we’re only prepared to evacuate within 10 miles of a plant if something does go wrong. In Japan, they had to evacuate much farther than anyone was prepared to do, in the midst of multiple other catastrophes.

    Further, it would be hard to argue that Fukushima was not a tragedy for the plant and emergency response workers exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, or the sick and elderly left to die in the rush to evacuate.

    For those of us who live in DC, the rush out town was awful on Tuesday even without having an actual disaster. My point is that our nuclear power infrastructure isn’t going away, but perhaps we need to rethink our preparedness and what exactly a worst-case-scenario really is, since we never know how many curve balls the world can throw at us at once.

  8. Blog-gotcha is a waste of space …
    … it is your blog, but my vote is to avoid links to posts that say thinks like this: “more stupidity … high levels of drivel from the more soppy-hand-wringing Guardianista types”.  If you are going to promote civil discourse then please do so.
    Give Kate S a break … Geez.

  9. Roddy Campbell says:

    Funnily enough, even the original interpretation is not completely invalid.  Chernobyl was a huge tragedy even though it will have killed by the end fewer than 100 people – the human displacement, pyschological effects, loss of livelihoods and so on affecting 00,000’s are well covered in the Forum reports.  I’m not up to speed on what the non-death tragic effects on humans have been in Japan from Fukushima, I’d be surprised if they’re trivial.
    You could take the warmist/environmental/Monbiot approach also that Japan and Germany and others swinging away from nuclear, necessarily to fossil fuels, is a huge tragedy, just a slow-moving one.  I know that’s not what she meant in the article.
    The rest of the article is quite sensible, are you being a bit nit-picky?

  10. Dean says:

    While the fix to prevent what happened at Fukushima from happening again under the same circumstances is not that hard, the problem really is that such a plant was only prepared for a moderate tsunami in a location that gets some of the worst tsunamis in the world more frequently than just about anywhere else.
    How many US nuclear plants in hurricane alley couldn’t handle a large storm surge? Technology does occasionally fail. No failures is probably not realistic, so the issue is creating technology where failures have limited impacts. Oil tanks will always blow up for some reason. Most kill nobody, some kill a few.
    That disasters at nuclear plants can be so much worse is the central issue. Land that is home to tens of thousands of people will likely not be habitable during their lifetime. What other kind of technology failure causes this? What other kind of technology failure can lead to instability for weeks or months.
    The idea that in a world of fallible humans nuclear could be a major supplier of electricity worldwide is a serious problem. There are numerous technologies that in some ways present an ideal for dealing with climate change. Each has some kind of negative to it, be it cost, intermittency, etc. With nuclear, there is a risk profile that is unique in it’s susceptibility to huge disaster in a way that is not shared with other technologies.
    Solar is in some ways an ideal solution to AGW, but in other ways not. For nuclear, the risk profile is a problem. If thousands of plants are built, including in countries with a lot weaker management skills than Japan, a disaster like Fukushima is bound to happen again. That the statistical impacts of that are less than coal, or less than AGW, isn’t going to make nuclear a good long-term because we live in a risk averse age. People will simply not rationally weigh the risks of AGW over the next century or two or more against a technology that occasionally depopulates a few counties, possibly causing thousands of cancers each time.
    Commercial air travel faced a similar problem and has managed to deal with it with an amazing record of safety. But even two 747s colliding in mid-air is not remotely close to a bad nuclear disaster. If these supposed new reactor designs can really deliver the kind of passive safety that they claim, maybe nuclear can get past this. But it isn’t going to be easy. Look at how the Chinese reacted to a train crash that killed 40 people.

  11. grypo says:

    Just a quick note about nuclear and GMO’s.  The resistance to these is a false equivalence.  People against nuclear have good reasons to be so.  And it’s not for the reasons usually associated, like NIMBYism, etc that get all the media attention.  And I’m saying this as someone who favors nuclear expansion immediately, even more so than Lynas’ call for the “newer” plants.  But the reasons to not expand into nuclear are vast.  The economics are incredibly complicated.  People who think we can role out a bunch of plants to replace coal are just as diluted as the NIMBY’s.  The cost to make them safe and deal with the uranium commodity prices NEED to be subsidized.  I would suggest the countries do this as a national energy solution, and allow for profit loss, subsidized by a portion of the carbon tax.  But this will never happen, and it isn’t because of the liberals.

    OTOH, the GMO opposition just looks maniacal.  I don’t get any of their objections, especially considering the good it can do in the face of the coming extensive drought, even in the US by, at best, mid century. 

  12. Hmm. I think Kate misses the point of the criticism. I think everyone is agreed that if “caused” had read “became” (that is, [earthquake plus nuclear disaster > earthquake], rather than [nuclear disaster > earthquake]) there would be no argument.

    I think there is no question that a mortality in the tens of thousands is worse than a mortality of zero. But I object to the implication that direct mortality is the only way to measure a disaster.

    The damage should also consider that while a tsunami does considerable damage, a nuclear disaster does damage which is essentially permanent. Thus the human carrying capacity of the world is decreased for a very long time. How the ensuing decline in wealth is redistributed as stress may be unmeasurable, but it is surely substantial.

    I don’t know that the final damages of the nuclear disaster have been tallied. It is probably possible to do that about now, but if someone has done so that would amount to something approaching science. 

    Right now you are just choosing your damage metric to make your case. That all said, I agree with Keith that the comparison is jarring and dubious. I also agree with Kate that all of this is peripheral to her point, which may be why she doesn’t seem to get why “caused” is such a clunker.


  13. To RickA, I recommend the book Normal Accidents by Charles Perrow. Perrow’s point is that anthropogenic disasters usually arise from a combination of factors.

    It’s absolutely clear that it was a mistake not to harden the backup generators to the tsunami.

    To state that the backup generators should have been located to withstand a 500 year tsunami is an easy conclusion after the fact. But multiplying that across all the plants in Japan would have amounted to a substantial expense. And what about a 5000 year tsunami? 

    What about some other threat that the designers may have neglected?

  14. Keith Kloor says:

    Kate (7),

    Thanks for responding. I offer my humble apology for isolating and then misinterpreting that one line of an article that makes a larger argument for something i agree with. In retrospect, I should have at least made note of what your article was actually about.

    I stand by my concluding assertion that liberals/greens are reflexively anti-nuclear and anti-GMO–and to a degree that is willfully at odds with their embrace of science in other issues, such as climate change.

    Several prominent environmental voices, such as Mark Lynas and George Monbiot have pointed out that these “anti” positions are counter to the aims of climate action.

    That said, I shouldn’t have singled out a line in your piece to flog that horse.

  15. Marlowe Johnson says:

    I predict that an acute shortage of humble pie is imminent…

    As someone who is ambivalent about nukes in electricity policy, I too find the hippie bashing on this subject frustratingly shallow considering how complicated energy policy really is (or at least aught to be).  Personally, my beef with nuclear is grounded in economic fairness concerns (e.g. subsidies via limited liability protections) rather than environmental.  If it comes down to a tradeoff between a nuclear meltdown and/or figuring out how to dispose of the waste and/or weapon proliferation on the one hand and emissions from coal and gas plants, I’ll take the nukes everytime.  The climate risks IMO trump everything else.

    However, I think this kind of framing mistakenly sets up a false choice.  A more fruitful discussion would consider the following:

    -cost of low carbon baseload options (e.g. geothermal, tidal, biomass, solar thermal, etc.) on a full cost basis 

    -prospects for cost reductions through deployment experience and/or storage technologies (e.g. pumped storage, CAES, V2G, etc)


    -grid/transmission constraints

    -conservation opportunities

    -district energy/cogen

    I could go on, but you get the idea…


  16. NewYorkJ says:

    Nuclear power environmental/human risks are often overstated (but monetary costs sometimes understated by nuclear advocates).

    There’s also sometimes a knee-jerk reaction towards persons or groups perceived to be overstating those risks or being generally anti-nuclear (see Lynas/Greenpeace for other examples).

    Kate should reword that sentence, something like “when the Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown compounded a big tragedy.”

  17. lou says:

    grypo, let us see how well the GMO corn and bean varieties hold up to the moderate drought in the midwest this year.  Granted, their developers probably claim little or no drought tolerance as GMO traits for current varieties.

    Drought resistance by GMOs have not been proven so it is debatable how well they can perform in the future.   

    The promise of GMOs depends greatly on how well they can perform in a high yield environment created by the generous addition of capital, energy and resource dependent inputs (including irrigation water).  The technologies have been ratcheted up to the point that it is not maniacal to question just how much of this is sustainable.  The ratcheting has to be be continued.  Whether or not civilization will remain prosperous enough in capital, energy and resources to keep GMOs pushing up the yield curves is the key question.  I don’t think I am mad to ask this of it.  

  18. grypo says:


    Your questions are fair.  But the people who attack the development to answer the questions  are the ones that you will find on the “left”, that see GMO’s as an attack specific environmental issues, ie organic farming, butterflies, etc.  I’m certainly not saying we now enough to say that GMO’s will save us, but the maniacal (bad wording perhaps) people are the ones that don’t even want to find the answers.

  19. Keith Kloor says:

    Just to note that I have elevated Kate’s comment and my response to the top of the post.

    FWIW: I regularly read Kate at Mother Jones and like her stuff. For example, she had a nice take on that recent alien story. (Disclosure: I have contributed a few pieces to MoJo years ago.)

    I just wish outlets like MoJo and Grist were more evenhanded in the way they approached the nuclear and GMO issues. But that’s a whole other ball of wax. 

  20. lou says:

    grypo, outside the box of our frames of left and right, I grant these folks, myself included, the freedom to explore alternate world views, some of which are closer to the wildness which got us here than to the fuzzy technological path that takes us farther from that wildness on a most questionable quest of providing for a projected 9 billion people on earth.

  21. RickA says:

    Michael @13

    I agree that it is easier to look backwards than forwards.

    I agree that it is always possible to think of potential disasters, which are not properly planned for – like a 5000 year tsunami.

    I do hope that the possibility of potential disaster isn’t enough to stop us from using nuclear power (like Germany) – which I see as a very important future energy source.

    In the end, we simply have to plan for the most likely events and carry on.  And fix the things we were wrong about as we learn about them.

  22. Jack Hughes says:


    Kate writes “the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused an even bigger tragedy when the Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown”

    It reads to me as though the Fukushima incident was worse than the tsunami. The paragraph is ambiguous and badly written. But don’t be too harsh on poor old Kate – it’s not like she’s a professional journalist. Oh, hang on…

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