Tag Archives | Nuclear Safety

Surveying Opinions on Scientific Issues

Last week, I wrote a short post on how someone’s combined views on climate change, nuclear safety and GMOs are a good indicator of their scientific temper and ideological biases. Subsequently, my colleague and fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar ran a short online survey on the same three questions to solicit responses. Survey participants were given five choices ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Karthik has analysed the survey results on the RQ blog that I would urge all readers to check out.

Firstly, we will look at the individual responses to each of the three questions:

…this shows that opinion in favour of global warming is fairly strong.

While a majority of the people believe that health risks from nuclear power have been exaggerated, the opinion is not as overwhelming as it is on the global warming front. There still exist a significant number of doubters of safety of nuclear energy.

When it comes to GM crops, however, public opinion is largely divided. As many people agree that GM crops are safe, as do people who believe they are unsafe. [RQ on INI]

The survey was designed to be quick and dirty – participants were largely those who found the survey on Twitter and Facebook and essentially selected themselves into entering the survey. Ergo, there are no claims made here that these responses are representative of any ‘universal’ population.

Taking a venn-diagram approach to analysing the survey responses, I was able to generate the chart below. I divided the 5 options for each questions into two categories: neutral or disagree, versus agree or strongly agree. Therefore, all those who have either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that 20th century climate change is anthropogenic come under the orange coloured ellipse, and all those who haven’t come outside of it. Note that the ellipses in the venn diagram have been drawn in proportion to the number of respondents who fall under that category.

Scientific Temper

The largest set of respondents (29 percent) are those who, according to my metrics, can be classified as “left wing”, those only agreeing to the climate change question while disagreeing with nuclear or GMO safety. The second largest (23 percent) is a curious set: they do not think that GMOs are safe, but agree both on nuclear safety and climate change. Without commenting on ideological biases, it is possible to look at this set as a people who are “climate change realists” – people who understand that we do not have the option to burn dirty fossil fuels endlessly, and that nuclear power has a role to play in reducing our fossil fuel dependence.

Some 19 percent of the respondents are those I would consider as being most sensitive to scientific evidence, but readers can feel free to disagree with me on that. About 10 percent of the respondents are classically right wing – the notion that ‘most environmental fears are overblown’ can explain their stance on all three questions.

About 9% agree that climate change is anthropogenic and that GMOs are safe – but are not convinced about nuclear safety. They form a subset that I find rather curious. In a sense, there is indeed a connection between the two topics. GMOs form an essential tool in retaining and improving agricultural productivity in the face of climate change and uncertainty – not just in creating drought and flood-resistant varieties, but also in converting C3 plants into C4 plants, the latter of which are far superior at tolerating high temperatures and making use of increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. It is difficult to comment, however, that  this knowledge indeed informs their opinions.

The initial hypothesis was that asking for opinions on anthropogenic climate change, nuclear safety and GMO safety would broadly give us three categories of respondents: left wing, right wing and those “biased to evidence”. When tested, it gave us four or five major categories of people, including those who disagree only with nuclear safety, or only with GMO safety.

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Bias to scientific reason

Issues of scientific complexity occupy a lot of space in public affairs – be it the extraction of shale gas, the effectiveness of alternative medicine or the alleged dangers from cell phone tower radiation. A strong position on many of these issues is often tied to a political ideology rather than a deference to scientific reasoning and evidence.

So what is the easiest way to figure out if someone defers to scientific reason above and beyond ideologies?

I say that you can do it by understanding their positions on three cardinal topics of today: anthropogenic climate change, the safety of nuclear power generation, and the safety of genetically modified foods. Broadly, people leaning towards the left of the political spectrum agree only with the first, and those leaning right agree only with the last two – be it with evidence or not. Ascertaining people’s views on all three is a good barometer of their deference to scientific evidence.

It is important, however, to note the core arguments that define these issues:

The core argument in climate change is that the earth’s surface warmed significantly in the 20th century due to human-linked emissions of greenhouse gases.

The argument with nuclear safety is that health risks from nuclear power generation, both chronic and acute, have been grossly exaggerated and that due to an obsession with nuclear safety for the past 6 decades, nuclear power is now safer than most other sources of energy.

The argument with genetically modified crops is that they are just as safe as other crops, both for growing and for consumption. Additionally, crop modification through targeted molecular biology techniques is in fact less genetically invasive than conventional hybridisation techniques.

All three arguments have overwhelming scientific evidence on their side, and the nature of the scientific debate is very different from the public and political discussions regarding the same.

Together, anyone’s views on all three topics – nuclear safety, GMOs and climate change – can be very illuminating. The discussion is moot, however, if people start questioning evolution.

Addendum. Subsequent to this post, we ran a short survey of opinions on these three issues and analysed the results.

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Fukushima – feat, not folly.

The latest news on the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown that took place in March 2011 came in a few days ago:

Now the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation has drawn on 80 scientists from 18 countries to produce a draft report that concludes: “Radiation exposure following the nuclear accident at Fukushima-Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely to be able to attribute any health effects in the future among the general public and the vast majority of workers.” [The Age, emphasis added.]

The UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) is yet to share the full report with the public on its website, but news outlets appear to have received early drafts from them. After a full two years of study, the study appears to conclude that ‘No radiation-related deaths or acute effects have been observed among nearly 25,000 workers involved at the accident site.

While this may sound contrary to the popular discourse on the “unmitigated disaster” that was Fukushima, this is hardly the first report indicating negligible health risks from nuclear radiation. As the same article mentions, the World Health Organisation had conducted a study which came out with similar results in February this year, finding but marginal increases in cancer risks among the most affected – while finding no evidence of increased miscarriages, stillbirths or more extreme effects of radiation exposure at the site.

The UN and the WHO are both organisations that are quite careful about health risks and human hazards (even erring too far on the side of caution in some cases) and cannot easily be dismissed as institutions that underplay nuclear radiation risks. The evidence flies in the face of initial hysterical claims of widespread hazards (including the spread of radiation through stratospheric wind systems!). Individuals like Mark Lynas have been steadily debunking most of the myths and bad science that has surfaced after the incident. Among other things, it seems like the impact of the forced evacuation and relocation of the elderly Japanese population around the nuclear reactor site might have had a larger health impact than all the nuclear radiation.

Some fear was generated last year when scientists found a significant number of mutant butterflies in the vicinity of Fukushima. While the increased mutations were likely a result of radiation exposure, the results are not of a kind that can be directly extrapolated to humans. Molecular biologists have extensively studied mutations and the effect of mutagens in various organisms, and the dose required for a human being are several orders of magnitude higher than what is sufficient to cause mutations in small invertebrate species like butterflies. Mammals also have more robust DNA error correction mechanisms that check mutations and are able to delete and remake mutated sequences of the genetic code. Further, it also helps to remember that all of us have numerous mutations – likely in every single cell in the human body – but only a small number of them cause changes in minor cell behaviour, a smaller number resulting in significant cellular changes, and an even smaller number resulting in tumours. A minuscule number of these are fatal or hereditary.

The reports by UN and WHO provide sound evidence for the minimal nature of impacts due to radiation exposure from the meltdown and ought to allay most fears on the subject, but unfortunately, they fail to do so.

Closer home, misinformation about Fukushima has had an enormous impact on Kudankulam on the southern coast of India. Fears about a Fukushima-like disaster have fueled resistance to the local nuclear reactor for over two years now. A quote from a woman at the nearby fishing village of Idinthakarai from 2012 is most telling:

“We never listened to Udayakumar Sir when he told us about the radiation dangers, till Fukusima happened. I saw it on TV and later on videos shown by our leaders. I realised that the fears were not far-fetched. It can happen to us also,” [The Telegraph, Feb 7, 2012]

Make no mistake, the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011 was a disaster of epic proportions, killing over 15,000 people and causing estimated damages of about $235 Billion dollars. But this was due to the tsunami, and not the nuclear meltdown in the TEPCO plant at Fukushima. However, the two were fungible for villagers 7,000 kilometres away in Tamil Nadu and it was taken advantage of by the local agitators and activists. It worked as effectively as it did because people had a living, recent memory of the Indian Ocean tsunami that caused widespread death and destruction in the region. Never mind that the Kudankulam nuclear reactor site was protected from the worst of it precisely because of its well-chosen location, sheltered from much of the open ocean by the island of Sri Lanka – as well as coral reefs and offshore islands.

Equally, one cannot claim that the Fukushima reactor meltdown had no elements of risk mismanagement and human error behind it, there were indeed many lapses on the part of the owner TEPCO and the Japanese government. BUT. I stand by my old claim that the damage control efforts after the emergency were nothing short of a feat of great human excellence and engineering. It is also telling that in spite of regulatory oversights and lapses in safety planning, the effects of the meltdown were minimal. This underscores the success of decades-long global obsession with nuclear reactor safety and security, which has resulted in a nuclear industry that is likely far safer than most other forms of energy production. The chronic safety risks from a nuclear power plant are nil today, and acute safety risks have the best-designed emergency response systems that human ingenuity has been able to develop – and are more than up to the challenge.

Once we stop listening to those trying to cause fear and doubt and look instead at hard evidence, the reality of nuclear risk and safety is quite apparent.

Bonus: I never tire of promoting Randall Munroe’s excellent radiation dose chart. It gives you a great picture of the natural ionising radiation that we live with, all the time. Also, read the Acorn‘s excellent post from just after the Fukushima incident in 2011.

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