Fear Water

The Japan nuke plant damage, with so far zero casualties, still commands far more attention than the tsunami’s tens of thousands of deaths. Consider also:

When, in 1975, about 30 dams in central China failed in short succession due to severe flooding, an estimated 230,000 people died. Include the toll from this single event, and fatalities from hydropower far exceed the number of deaths from all other energy sources. (more)

Human-induced seismicity can be deadly if it triggers the release of accumulated tectonic strain on a large fault. The textbook case occurred in 1967 when the filling of a reservoir behind India’s hydroelectric Koyna Dam—completed six years earlier—unleashed a magnitude 6.3 quake, killing 180 people and leaving thousands homeless. Geophysicists continue to debate whether the Zipingpu Dam, completed in 2004, triggered the [2008] 7.9-magnitude earthquake that devastated China’s Sichuan province three years ago, killing over 70,000. (more)

Add in Katrina and other hurricanes and the Indonesian tsunami, and you might think the obvious lesson is: be afraid of water, not isotopes. People should fear living near the ocean, or under a dam, far more than being downwind of a nuke plant. Why so little fear of water?

Added 5p: I often had childhood nightmares of a tsunami, but never had any nightmares regarding other energy sources. So people clearly are capable of fearing water.

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  • http://qchu.wordpress.com/ Qiaochu Yuan

    The availability heuristic, right? Nuclear holocaust commands public attention in a way that floods just don’t; it’s just more interesting to portray in the news, a movie, or a video game. Floods are mundane so people don’t want to talk about or think about them.

  • Unknown

    Excellent post. I agree, I am very afraid of water, I never go near it.

    • Robert Wiblin

      I’ve gone further and had my whole body freeze-dried.

  • CaptBackslap

    FYI, the nuke plant problem no longer has zero casualties; a couple workers were found dead there recently. And quite a few more technicians are pretty sure they’ll die in the next few weeks.

    • Chris T

      The two workers have been missing since March 11 and were killed by the tsunami.

      • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

        Well, so they say. Given the general secretiveness of involved parties, I assign a non-trivial probability that they were *not* killed by the tsunami (in the direct sense you mean).

      • Chris T

        Conspiracies aside, the nuclear situation still has zero fatalities associated with it. If information comes to light suggesting they did die of radiation poisoning, then that assessment will change.

    • Douglas Knight

      Moreover, a worker at the Fukushima II plant was killed by a crane.

  • http://www.nancybuttons.com Nancy Lebovitz

    I think novelty matters a lot. New or unusual threats grab attention. I’ve heard that the major causes of death in Africa are the usual boring things like heart disease and diabetes, but the charity goes to diseases which are rare or non-existent in the countries which give aid.

    It’s also possible that fear of water is repressed because floods and tsunamis seem like too large a problem.

  • Michael
  • fiatmoney

    You can see water, and people in some sense know how to deal with a tsunami (get to higher ground, or flee in general). Radiation is invisible death, imperceptible, and impossible to know if whatever you did to avoid it is really working. Fear of the unknown seems like part of it.

  • John

    Personally, I believe the nuclear threat is way overblown. But “news” is about what’s presently occurring, or might occur in the near future, rather than what’s already occurred. You might as well ask why the Iraq and Afghanistan wars command so much more media attention than the Vietnam war, since that war had so many more casualties.

    • Evan

      but events from the tsunami are still occurring. the confirmed death total is rising each day, rescuers are helping those displaced, looking for missing persons, etc. im sure the news could cover this if they stopped the nuclear tail-wagging

      personally i think the global coverage is so biased that you could compare it to the Times article about the 11-year-old girl who was ‘blamed’ for being gang-raped

      • John

        I’m not so sure it’d be covered more in the absence of the nuclear problems. I wish I still had LexisNexis so I could do a more accurate comparison, but remember the 2005 Kashmir earthquake that killed around 80,000 people? Maybe I’m wrong, but I remember the coverage of that quake being roughly equivalent to the coverage of the Japan tsunami. Just doing a basic search for “media coverage 2005 kashmir earthquake” I found a few sites that seemed to back me up, e.g. this.

        Robin always confuses me when he posts these “the media is biased!” posts because, like someone else said… duh. Look at the media coverage of car accidents vs. murders. In the present case I think the particular bias most affecting news coverage is probably the bias for a presently occurring story rather than “history,” but it’s clear that other biases (anti-nuke sentiments among them) are at work too. It just doesn’t seem that surprising to me.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    > People should fear living near the ocean, or under a dam, far more than being downwind of a nuke plant. Why so little fear of water?

    Water is ‘natural’ and visible; nuclear power is invisible, unnatural, and under the control of elites to boot.

    Come to think of it, nuclear power seems like it was almost *designed* to push peoples’ buttons/biases, doesn’t it? About the only way I can think of which makes it scarier is if nuclear power plants were sentient or something.

    • Steve Burrows

      Nuclear unnatural? That is a pretty broad claim, when you can simply pile a bunch of high quality uranium ore together and create a “reactor.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_nuclear_fission_reactor

      • http://www.gwern.net gwern

        I thought I was pretty clearly signaling that I didn’t agree with the common interpretation of natural when I put it in scare-quotes.

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  • S

    My understanding is that one worker was lost in the tsunami, one was killed by a collapsing crane, and two were killed in one of the hydrogen gas explosions. But the reporting is abysmal, and this is probably not accurate.

    As far as radiation, the highest dose I can find reported is about 180 milliSeivert for the two workers who accidentally waded through radioactive water and were hospitalized with beta burns. That is still well below the 250 mS emergency exposure limit, and I doubt those two are going back to the reactor. Given that transportation is to the point that people can be easily rotated in and out, and unless they get thrown a very nasty curveball (less and less likely as time goes by), then it is doubtful there will be any frank radiation sickness at all (requiring 5000+ mS exposure), let alone “pretty sure they’ll die in the next few weeks”, at least from radiation.

    And I grew up in New Orleans…flood water scares the crap out of me. Radiation, not so much, especially since I have a rad meter to tell me what is going on if anything happens.

  • http://offsettingbehaviour.blogspot.com Eric Crampton

    A farmer committed suicide after being told his produce couldn’t be sold as he was in the exclusion zone.

  • Thomas

    First of all I think most people are not afraid of nuclear plants in the way they are afraid of tsunamis and earthquakes.
    A natural disaster is frightening but I guess there is just no way to prevent it. It is coming either way, so you better learn to deal with it when it happens.
    A nuclear plant is believed to be dangerous (I hold that belief myself) and it’s not outside of reach for people to maybe successfully try to do something against this danger, so if you are afraid of them you shouldn’t waste your energy on trying to calm down the earth’s crust but rather try to prevent natural disasters getting worse through nuclear ones.

    • Evan

      except that you CAN prevent deaths from natural disasters. buildings are coded to withstand earthquakes, barriers are erected to prevent/limit water from coming ashore. the bolstering of these defenses is what the news should be focusing on rather than the comparatively insignificant ‘disaster’ at the nuclear plant

      • Thomas

        Yes, sure, you can prevent death by natural disaster, but not the disaster itself – read again and you will see that I talked exactly about that and I did it on purpose.
        Besides: There is more damage to a nuclear disaster then just dead people. Land becomes unusable for decades. That alone should be enough.

      • Thomas

        Sorry to not post this in one post. There is one more thing about nuclear plants: We still don’t know, what to do with the waste.

  • Matthew

    One small point: There are lots of benefits of living near water (or travelling to it) to outweigh the risks, such as picturesque views, opportunities for exercise, job opportunities, etc. There are few benefits to living near a nuclear plant, other than obviously convenience if you work there.
    Another point: Nuclear plants are newsworthy because human policy decisions lead to their creation/closure, so there are more talking and debating points. Bodies of water don’t have people to speak for them on TV.

  • jb

    I agree with the others about the visibility of water vs the invisibility of radiation.

    If anything recreates primitive, animalistic fears of supernatural ‘evil spirits’, it’s radiation.

    I wonder if that fear of evil spirits is our primitive response to unusually (naturally) radioactive ground, or poison gas blooms, and things like that. Evil spirits have surrounded us! Run, Run as fast as you can!

  • Colin S

    simple. Living near the water is fun as hell. Swimming in the summer. Skating in the winter. Fishing. Boating. Enjoying a cold beer while looking out onto the water with the salty breeze coming in. It’s just nice.

    I support nuclear energy, and I agree the attention being paid to the nuclear plant versus the actual tsunami is outrageous, but it’s no surprise that humans really, really like living near water.

  • Michael Sullivan

    more important, until the last 150 years or so, the economic and health benefits of living (and building towns or cities) near water were gigantic.

    In terms of our ancestral context, hydrophilia would beat hydrophobia hands down for fitness, so it’s little wonder that we do not fear water.

    Even in modern society, the benefits of living near water far outweigh the risks for most people (as judged by property and land values), and this seems like a reasonable estimation if you are even moderately prudent.

    The real point to the comparison seems to be how little danger is actually associated with nuclear power when looked at purely from a statistical standpoint. Partly *because* we are so frightened by nature of the threat, and the worst case possibilities, the industry is associated with so many more precautions than other sources of energy which keeps the actual threat to a bare minimum.

    I would rather live next to a nuclear plant than a coal or oil plant. At least if something goes wrong at a nuclear plant, I can be damned sure I’ll know *exactly* what my exposures are, and I’ll be warned to evacuate on the least possibility of real problems. Anything short of a chernobyl level incident will probably not have a major bad effect.

  • OhioStater

    Wikipeida says the average adult male is 57% water by body weight. We are water.

    We have no choice but to live near water, and you can’t fear things like that.

    At some point the sun will die and either get smaller, making earth cold, or larger, making earth really hot. Just like moving away from the coasts, humans should try to find a newer planet with a more stable star, but that’s not feasible.

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