Safely… and Consistently

What does it mean to do things safely? Does the definition of safely stay constant from one human endeavour to the next?

I’ll support nuclear energy when it can be operated safely.
Nuclear waste can’t be stored safely, it remains toxic for fifty thousand years!

Is the safely which gets applied to nuclear the most desperately unattainable safely you can think of?

Airlines operate their craft safely enough that millions fly every month. And more people are flying every year. Yet between 1969 and 2000, over 67,000 people perished in plane crashes. Whether you’re travelling soon, or your relative is, or your friends with their young children are, this number won’t make you reconsider your plans or try to stop them. This isn’t even accounting for the radiation dose associated with high altitude flight.

Courtesy of Professor Gerry Thomas

Why 1969–2000? During that time 29,938 people perished due to the catastrophic failure of hydroelectric dams. These deaths don’t inspire coordinated international protest against hydro power, and nor should they, as practically all dams are operated safely today. Clearly safely means much the same thing for air travel as it does for renewable hydro energy.

Courtesy of Susanna Hertrich
But the Fukushima disaster made it impossible for evacuees to return home safely.
Fukushima revitilisation

The worst nuclear accident in an OECD nation caused no radiation-related deaths. Locals are safely returning as evacuation orders are lifted and the psychological damage is recognised. They’re farming produce which can be enjoyed safely. Over five years on, and the only parts of the internet still insisting that swathes of Japan are uninhabitable wasteland are chemtrail conspiracy sites; the fringe thought-leaders who bellowed the loudest are now distracted by 911 trutherism.

And if a few workers or civilians eventually perish because Fukushima Daiichi wasn’t safely controlled in the wake of a devastating natural disaster they are mourned no less than the tsunami’s victims, the hydroelectric drownings and those lost in plane crashes. But, like those other activities, it doesn’t mean that reliable, plentiful, climate-friendly nuclear energy can’t be supplied safely to whole countries.

If the version of safely that is demanded only for nuclear energy is so clearly disconnected from reality, should the nuclear industry itself put so much emphasis on it? As observed by Malcolm Grimston:

Never ever treat radiation as more dangerous that it is in comparison to other environmental ‘insults’: the belief that this will ‘put people’s minds at rest’ is truly irrational.
Fine, it’s safe, but that’s hardly the best thing about it.

In most countries nuclear energy is a touchstone of safe industrial operations, but its actual product is pollution-free electricity, not safety. Its by-products are contained safely, and the notion that prospering future generations will lack any ability to maintain such straightforward storage — or better yet put the material to productive use — betrays a neo-malthusian lack of faith in their potential (a potential which should outstrip ours if we’re doing our jobs properly).

So in the end, it’s not difficult: compare safely for one ubiquitous activity of modern civilisation with another, in a fair and informed way. If we can, an energised future with a diverse mix of clean sources will allow us to meet our big challenges safely together.

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