Nuclear Optimism and the Reality of How Humans Price Risk
by Gregor Macdonald
The cataclysm visited upon Japan this March has produced an understandable debate over the future of nuclear power. As so often is the case, however, these post-crisis conversations presume the freedom to decide new policy choices when such choices, by society, have already been made. Decades after the advent of nuclear power, this modern energy source still provides only 5% of total global primary energy supply. Reality tested, risk adjudicated, and cost denoted, nuclear power has been given more than enough time to be adopted. We can talk all we like. There is little reason for nuclear optimism. | see: Global Energy Use by Source 2010 (estimate).

When humans assess risk we are more inclined to overweight catastrophic damage that occurs in short, acute phases than we are to pay sufficient attention to losses which come more chronically, over time. Thus it’s inarguable that the extraction, transport, and burning of coal for example will do (and has done) far greater harm than nuclear power. But humans prefer to live with a measure of negativity, than to die suddenly. This strikes the rationalists as downright…irrational. But is this really so surprising? Heightened aversion to sudden death (or intense suffering), but, complacency towards slow death has been a winning trait for the species.

The rationalists will of course make their case for nuclear power. Robert Bryce did so recently, for example, and his case is strong. However, when we consider how humans will actually respond to Fukushima—not how they should respond—we can begin to understand why the little yellow bar in the chart shown above rests at 5.36%. For example, in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 financial crisis when the world found itself slightly poorer, it was coal demand that made the largest advance in 2010, rising over 6.00%. In the aftermath of Japan’s earthquake, already that country is reaching hard for LNG–liquified natural gas—and will certainly reach harder for coal as well. Indeed, I have figured that in a post-Fukushima environment, with a likely global, rolling, safety review of nuclear power, that as much as 2.00% of total global energy demand could swing to LNG and coal over the next 36 month. By the time that process is finished, nuclear power will be even more diminished in its role.

It’s not governments, environmentalists, or any marginal group that’s responsible for nuclear’s built in limits to adoption. It’s the extraordinary complexity of nuclear power, it’s high cost and time to completion, and society’s fear that accounts for its growth rate. I would much rather forecast society’s reactions towards nuclear in the future, than to bet on the efficacy of rationalism. Indeed, I am willing to bet that nuclear power will never rise to 10% of total global energy supply—mostly because I doubt it will ever reach 8.00%—or even much higher than it is today just above 5.00%. The yeah vs. nay conversation therefore about nuclear will remain, as it is today, largely recreational.