Monday, April 25, 2011

Nuclear debates

Understandably, the recent weeks have witnessed quite a few debates about the risks and benefits of nuclear energy. Two of them have particularly caught my attention because they lay open more clearly some of the subtle points in the debate, and how some of them are also used to promote own views in other important debates in our societies, like nuclear weapons and climate change.

Taken together they have brought me to pore over the interaction between technology and democracy from the point of view of a hopefully informed lay person trying to understand and disentangle what experts have to say and how the voice of those experts is conveyed to the middle of the societies through the media.
In one of the debates, organized by The Economist, a majority of readers participating in the poll express their support for nuclear energy, albeit not by the broad margin I would have expected from a publication like The Economist: almost one third accept the motion that nuclear energy should be banned as an energy source in the future. What surprised me more in this debate were the arguments of the 'environmentalist proponent'. The most important reasons, according to his opening statement, are not the risks nuclear plants represent for the environment, but the risks that nuclear weapons pose to humanity.
In the second debate, hosted by The Guardian's Alok Jha, George Monbiot discusses against Helen Caldicott on more down-the-Earth-terms, including Chernobyl and the effects of radiation on human health. Monbiot defends the point of view that one does not need to love nuclear plants to accept the fact that they are now to most effective way to forego carbon emissionsand that phasing them out now would much more damaging for the global environment. An interesting point in the debate, which is indirectly related to the role of the IPCC in the realm of climate discussion, is how Monbiot defends the report issued by the UN Scientific Committee on the effects of atomic radiation, equating it to the IPCC Reports on Climate Change.
I must admit that on this issue my view overlaps significantly with Monbiot's. It seems to me that he behaves in a consistent way. He is not an expert on nuclear physics or environmental radiation and he has to rely on reports issued by experts endorsed by the UN. When those reports, like the IPCC's, tell him that the environment is in danger he aligns himself with the environmental movement. But when these reports indicate that the environmental movement is telling an untrue story, like in the case of nuclear radiation, he unswervingly confronts the environmental movement. This underlies the importance of UN Panels to summarize the scientific evidence and interpret it for the broad public, especially on these technically complex issues. But also how essential it is that these panels appear credible to most of us.

The more general thoughts that these polls prompted entail the role of technologies, or rather new technologies, in the behavior of societies. We have now several new technologies that have been developed in the last few decades, which the individuals of the world are mostly enjoying, but which Western democratic societies are still grappling with, either to assimilate them fully or to design legal safeguards to avoid their most nasty consequences if left unchecked. To name a few: the internet, nuclear power, genetically modified crops. In the case of the internet, it seems clear that its benefits vastly outstrip its risks and there has barely been a public discussion about the possibility of forbidding the internet. A very old, but very powerful and also very risky piece of human technology, was incorporated to virtually all modern societies, and it also is a software technology: money. Clearly, money has been the source of immense human suffering but its benefits are so incommensurable that nobody seriously promotes the idea of prohibiting money, although some libertarian societies in the early 20th century did. These technologies, along with automobiles or mobile phones, were simply adopted without much societal discussion. They just sneaked into life, and when vigilantes hurried to point out the risks, everyone else was already enjoying the benefits.
Perhaps the nuclear power lobby adopted the wrong strategy, and instead of building large 1-gigawatt plants to deliver as much energy as possible, nuclear power could have started with small, portable reactors, scattered all over the place. The failure of one of them would not have presented a serious environmental problem and once there, societies would not like to be weaned off cheap and continuous nuclear power even when confronted by a manageable and continuous stream of casualties, as it now happens with oil, coal or road traffic. The benefits of starting small and grow later are clearly that by the time you need political approval you are already too widespread, too necessary. Like money, for instance.


Werner Krauss said...

My super long and super thoughtful comment disappeared!!!!! What a waste of time!!!!!

Roddy said...

The point that Monbiot appears to be behaving in a consistent fashion is a very important and good one. He is. And, to my eyes, his interactions with Caldicott have brought her arguments out blinking into the sunlight and showed us what they really are - factually insupportable, and in good part based (as per Eduardo's environmentalist) on opposition to nuclear weapons.

Werner Krauss said...

Very interesting post, Eduardo! I read it several times; here some questions that came up when thinking about it:

How do you measure the distance from experts to the middle of society? And where exactly is the middle of society? And are experts not part of this society?

And who is exactly the 'environmental movement'? And how can such diverse groups speak (or lie) with one voice? And who defines that Helen Caldicott is this voice?

And one last remark: do you think it is a good idea to link the debate about climate change with the debate about nuclear energy? I think this would be a real disservice to any climate politics. One thing is the technological dimension; the other is the social history of nuclear energy.

(And, by the way, would you ever believe a nuclear expert in case of emergency? Maybe people don't understand much of nuclear energy; but they know when a nuclear expert appears on TV and confirms that there is no danger - then you know that it is time to run!)

eduardo said...


experts ↔ society. I think this is the conundrum around we are beating round all the time. In a technologically more simple society , say an agrarian society 1000 years ago or so, every peasant knows more or less what to do. Now, we continuously need technical knowledge from others , when we visit the doctor, etc. The relationship is asymmetrical, although the same persons may play different roles, for instance when a doctor brings the car to the workshop, or when a politician consults a sociologist about her prospects in the next election, or when the sociologist wants to invests the proceeds of his consulting activity. Thus, I do think that there exist the distinct role of an expert, but it is not always completely clear who is an expert and when.

My reference to the environmental movement was not meant to be categorical. I know there there may many subtleties, for instance some members of the German Green Party support nuclear power, but in general I think there is a common corpus opinion.

It was not my intention to mingle the climate debate with the nuclear debate, but rather to learn from their parallelism. For me it is quite useful because in one of them I would be considered an expert, but not in the other. By comparing both, I am trying to feel what an educated lay person may feel confronted with the climate debate , from which I am already contaminated. In that sense I am behaving like an empirical sociologist, I guess.

I am not advocating a technocracy, and decisions, in theory, should reside in society. But my objections to this angelical state of affairs would be: one, that society does not behave pro-active but rather says yes or no to proposals made by elites and often not even that; and secondly, to assert a clear yes or no today (for instance to nuclear power), one needs a very large body of knowledge which nobody really has, not even the experts on nuclear energy

Werner Krauss said...

Well argued, Eduardo.
There is one (anthropological) point I consider worth of a discussion:
You say:
"In a technologically more simple society , say an agrarian society 1000 years ago or so, every peasant knows more or less what to do."

I think this is not true. In those societies, life is incredible difficult, because you have to please the ancestors, the spirits, the Gods; you have to contact the priest, the shaman, the rainmaker; everything is full of rituals, taboos, prescriptions, evil eyes - and so many risks in case you break the rules! You were completely helpless without the experts!

Now consider our society: do you see the similarity? Don't we have to ask the experts all the time? Aren't we afraid that the skies fall down? Don't we connect everyday practices like driving a car or using hair spray to the skies above, to the future of our children, to the Genesis? yes, we do. Just like those in premodern societies. No difference!

The trouble we are in is that we believe we were different from our ancestors. Modern. We believe there is an absolute knowledge, a perfect expert knowledge, a Science written with capital S, independent from all these social, political, economic, religious stuff. But as the sociologist Bruno Latour once said: We have never been modern. There is no such thing as a truth behind everything which can tell us once and for all what we have to do; instead there is only good and bad science (with a modest small s) - a well integrated, careful science or an arrogant and cold science pretending to be Science above the cultural world we inhabit.
Or the like...

Roddy said...

Werner - re your '...they know when a nuclear expert appears on TV and confirms that there is no danger - then you know that it is time to run!' comment.....

I know what you mean, but there was a very interesting conference call hosted by the UK's Chief Scientific Officer Beddington with the Embassy in Tokyo, explaining the risks and knowledge re Fukushima so that the Embassy would know how to advise UK citizens in Japan, and what action to take - so absolutely a practical purpose.

Here's the transcript and somewhere there is a recording.

These experts, channelled into answering lay questions from Tokyo Embassy officials that they would be asked in turn, I thought did an extremely convincing job in setting out the real risks and the areas of knowledge.

Werner Krauss said...

@Roddy #6

No doubt, Roddy, you are perfectly right. Of course, there are many high class experts who do a great job. Exactly what we expect from well educated scientists etc.
My remark was ironic, of course, even though I wanted to point out that as a lay person you judge not only statements, but situations and the performance of experts / politicians in situations. Thus, we do not judge by information / knowledge alone. And in the case of nuclear science, it's not only irony: just watch the poor guys from TEPCO, for example. I guess people in the area of Fukushima need to be experts in the art of interpretation to find out how dangerous the situation is. I am sure they don't take the experts' statements at face value; at least, i would recommend not to do so.

Roddy said...

I'm English, Werner, we do irony!

Interpretation / context / experience absolutely contribute to our acceptance of / belief in information, also of course our interpretation of the experts' motives, conscious and perhaps unconscious.

In this case, as an example, I could see little incentive for these experts to slant their advice to Embassy officials in any particular direction, whereas when the same CSO opines on the dangers of BSE I can see all sorts of ways he is placing himself at 'risk', eg torn between a zero-risk safety-first opinion and the legitimate economic interests of farmers.

So yes, I quite get that we apply all of our knowledge and experience when we listen to experts - oh look, we're back to Gadamer again!

Thomas said...

Eduardo nuclear power could not start small and grow big for the simple reason that small didn't exist when nuclear started .
Actually "small" economically interesting for large scale distribution doesn't exist even today .
Also the proper "nuclear" part is a small part of the whole plant so it is safer and more economical to build with modules of about 1 GW .

Now for the society part .
There is an invariant with human since they exist - they want to work less , be confortable , live longer and healthier .
If you make a poll on this proposal , you'll get probably 90% + agreement .
This is the drive for science and its cousin technology .
And they provided exactly that - we work less , live longer and healthier .
Now it comes with a price - the risk .
It is indeed all about the balance costs and benefits only in some cases people don't make the connection .
In other cases they succumb to what the Minister Müller I mentionned in another post called "magical thinking" .
They think that something will happen only because they wish it to happen .
Wanting to stop nuclear and fossile and being convinced that there will still be some 600 billions kWh/ year (Germany) available to power factories , hospitals , heating , lighting , cooling , cooking , TV sets and computers is typically magical thinking .
Then the reason kicks in and says that the wish is feasible but the price is to work more , live less confortable and shorter .
But the magical thinking prevents that this loop closes .
How can the contradiction be solved ?
Well like it has been in the past everytime a majority insisted that it had a magical solution - some day some people impose a society model to check whether magics works .
As it doesn't , it fails horribly and serves of example of what's to be avoided in the future .
One country , one generation or more will be sacrified but sometimes it is very worthwile

Werner Krauss said...

@Thomas #9
From your post, I get that YOU want to work less, live more comfortable and longer etc. I also get that you are obviously more clever (no magical thinking!)than 'they' are , but simultaneously you suffer from a death wish (one generation will be sacrificed - which IS magical thinking, right?).

To avoid such contradictions, sometimes it helps to replace 'they' with 'I' and read it again. If you then don't like what you read about yourself, just delete it and replace it with something you like. In short: be respectful of other people. Don't think too bad of them. And if it's only because you are one of them.

eduardo said...


Maybe you are partially right. Judging by the attention raised by recent weddings, I have to give that there are still quite ancestral behaviors in our societies. But on the other hand, if one morning you have head ache and you cannot start your car, you usually call the doctor for an appointment and you would call a repair service to take care of the car, and not the other way around. At a certain level, we do trust the experts, and I would argue that we trust them to an incredible degree. After visiting a doctor, a person that you may have never met before, you can a prescription scribbled on piece of paper that allows you to buy some pills, which probably you have never heard about before, and without hesitation you take those pills for several days. How do you know that that unknown person was a doctor in the first place and that he did not prescribed what could be poison ? Similarly, the pharmacist accepts a piece of paper, which some people call money, and knows that in 10 years he will be able to go to a bank in the US, change it for other type of money and buy food from a person totally unknown to him.

Why would one trust the doctor in a situation that could be life-threatening and one would not trust the IPCC Report ?

Werner Krauss said...

thanks: finally, at least partially right!

Weddings are okay. First I didn't like Kate. But after the magic was done - entering the church and becoming a part of the royal family - I started to like her. She looks great, but boy, she must be really hungry! But I am not really interested. I just watched this for a while, because I wanted to share some time with my girl who... etc etc... anyway, many people like fairy tales. Nothing wrong about that. Who wants to read only Nature or Science? You would stay single all life long...

Everybody knows that doctors know a lot about bones, stomachs and headaches. In serious cases, we consult a second or third doctor, because we know they are only human, and that knowledge is uncertain. Among academics, many go to homeopathic doctors, don't know why. Like the priests they preach water and drink wine, or was it the other way round...

Same about cars. I have a placard of St. Christophorus on my dashboard. Blessed by a Portuguese priest, I was told. I am not even catholic! But it helps a lot, up to now. No serious damage. In serious cases I contact one of those expert mechanics, but I don't trust most of them. You have a flat tire, and they sell you a new engine! Worse than climate scientists who promise you 'never again white Christmas', and next you are stuck in a snowstorm...

Everybody (?) knows that we know a lot about tomorrow's weather (even though we are not surprised when the weatherman went wrong); but we (?) also know that we don't know too much about climate yet, in comparison. But we know a lot about scientists, of course. They are no saints (nor do they have to be). What is at stake for scientists is that I (and many others maybe) don't believe in truth as an indisputable fact 'out there' anymore; instead, I know that truth is constructed under certain conditions, by specific people, living in specific times. Some truths are truer than other truths, right? Everybody knows, I hope. That's what changed. That's why we put our bets on communication.

Times are over where a scientist in a white coat speaks truth and people accept. Now the scientist has to admit that there are sometimes different possibilities, uncertainties, and she has to argue and communicate. My doctor does so permanently. (Recently she told me that maybe my aura is damaged. I worried about my doctor, a little). But most of the time, I accept what the doctor prescribes.

Other (most) truths are still accepted, of course, put into a box and stored away. Gravity, broken bones, freak waves etc.. Otherwise we would go crazy, communication overkill, that doesn't work. Other 'truths' are open to discussion. Attention deficit syndrome, nutrition, role of greenhouse gases (?), nuclear energy...

Nothing wrong about that. Good science will (hopefully) always succeed. What is lost is blind faith in those guys with their white coats, their elitism and their fear of democracy. Which is a kind of progress, a sustainable one.

By the way, the IPCC will recover, no doubt. As much as hybrid politico-scientific-global-interest groups can recover. I guess pure existence is already a success, good science is the bonus we get. The critique of the IPCC is a great example of the opening up of the scientific process, I think. Maybe it is the end of science as 'speaking truth to society' and the beginning of a dialog about how we can live best. I hope the IPCC will become (or remain) one of those tools which ensure a certain quality of discussion. That's all we can ask for, I guess.