IN THE ATOMIC AGE of rock'n roll affluence, one of the continuing burdens of citizenship is keeping up with the latest public threats to life and limb. Here is another to add to your list: killer windmills.
I have in my possession an official government study which sounds the alarm. When windmills are spread across America generating electricity, thousands of people will be maimed and killed as a result.
Solar power will be nearly as dangerous as windmills, the report warns. Why haven't we been told this before?
Good grief. The cold statistics have an even scarier message for us. Solar power and windmills, according to this government report, will be more dangerous than nuclear power plants. This is chilling news, if you thought the world was headed toward a soft energy future of wind and sun, where nobody gets hurt.
I am being playful about killer windmills and the death-dealing side effects of solar power because I assume, no matter what dreadful statistics I offer, most people of ordinary common sense will refuse to be scared. If I add the small fact that this particular study -- "Risk of Energy Production" by Herbert Inhaber -- was done for the Atomic Energy Control Board of Canada, that would irrevocably tarnish its conclusions for most skeptics.
Nevertheless, the Inhaber report is an elegant body count, provocative because it perversely turns the tables on the "soft tecnology" futurists. With prosaic charts and tables, Inhaber insists that all of the casualties be counted, not merely the imagined masses who perish in our collective fright vision of nuclear calamity, but the real ones who die everyday, in the here and now.
Implicitly, Inhaber attacks the religious assumptions which surround this question of risk and fear. If windmills are not safe, from whence will come our salvation?
EVERYONE IS FREE to choose his own fears. If the fourth freedom is freedom from fear, the fifth is freedom to fear, picking and choosing from the parade of potential catastrophes. If the breakfast bacon does not poison us, perhaps the hamburger at lunch will. If fire does not fall from the sky someday, then maybe a silent, odorless, irradiated wind will come around the corner and blow death up our noses.
As our attention scurries from one grave risk to another, as experts offer new entries on the list, our pursuit of fear coalesces, strangely enough, with our pursuit of entertainment. Great fires, plane crashes, nuclear holocaust, dread diseases revived from the Middle Ages -- these are staple themes on TV. These disaster dramas all teach the same lesson: The stresses and strains of mass death bring out the best in people. Or reveal serious character flaws in the arrogant: The fat man dies well, but the blustery cowboy turns to jelly.
This is not very entertaining, really. It is more like sick laughter in a greasy burlesque hall. The lesson on "character" makes us feel righteous, while actually we are laughing at both the fat man and the blustery cowboy. Because they are dying and we aren't.
Ultimately, this proliferation of entertaining fears becomes a crippling condition, a confusion that deepens the modern sense of impotence. The supposed dangers of modern life -- an unseen wind, a menacing cloud, a stain in the hamburger -- are not only beyond our personal control, but even beyond the grasp of our ordinary common sense. Few of us can pick or choose reliably among the best things to worry about, even killer windmills, because we don't understand statistical probability or even low-grade chemistry. All fears may be regarded as equally frightening in the land of the free, home of the brave, if you are inclined toward worry.
Some citizens, confronted with this confusion of potential killers, choose to relax and enjoy our hamburgers. This attitude is usually denounced as dumbheaded and hedonistic. Certainly, it's hedonistic but I'm not so sure it's that dumb.
On the whole, we prefer the long, pleasurable life of modern comforts to the shorter, sometimes dreadful lifespans which preceded industrial society. Having examined the available evidence, we conclude that something or other will kill us all, someday, despite fears, despite eternal vigilance. We accept a heretical notion: Dying can't be all that bad, if everybody does it.
Other citizens, who are more conscientious, demand government action. If you wish to understand the federal government in all of its eccentricities, think of a gigantic and diverse organization dedicated to defending us against death. Study the budget -- from the Pentagon to the anti-cancer research, from the Federal Trade Commission to the campaign for safe cars -- and you will see many worthy and many ridiculous goals. Huge heaps of money are stacked against rather modest dangers, almost the way primitive peoples placed sheep and goats on the altars of vengeful gods.
This religious quality of modern spending -- deliverance in the here-and-now, not the hereafter -- explains why people feel especially bitter if the government betrays them and does something to kill people, instead of saving them. This deliverance is noble work but bound to fail, ultimately, for reasons which, alas, lie beyond Congress or the president.
IN THE MODERN REALM of public fears, real risks in the here-and-now somehow sound less frightening than the limitless possibilities of future calamity. Thus, 150 or so miners will be killed every year in coal-mine accidents; another 14,000 or more will suffer disabling injuries. This is happening every year, with extraordinary regularity, despite the federal safety laws, but nobody is marching to close down the coal mines. For that matter, nobody is turning off their lights to save a coal miner.
Coal kills ordinary citizens every year, too, through pollution of the air. So does oil. This is happening right now, in our own time, but it does not seem to scare people half as much as the possibility that someday, some-where, if something goes wrong, a nuclear power plant might melt down and spew forth radiation and kill, rather quickly, 10,000 or, who knows, 100,000 people.
So far, this calamity has not happened in nearly 25 years of operating commercial nuclear plants. Indeed, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, not a single American worker has died in a commercial nuclear plant because of rediation accidents, a claim which is not vigorously disputed by the anti-nuke critics. That is a marvelous industrial-safety record compared with competing fuels, expecially coal, yet it doesn't really settle any of the fears. The basic fear casts forward into future generations and defines probability curves which translate into nightmares.
For many, this is more compelling than the known record. The Inhaber report can state with absolute reliability that some people, perhaps many people, will be killed by windmills and solar power. There is no mystery about it: Both of these "soft" energy systems, regardless of their other virtues, require heavy manufacturing of hardware, much more than a nuclear power plant when compared on the basis of how much electricity each produces. That means additional industrial deaths and injuries in the steel and glass factories (and in coal mines), plus more public hazard from industrial pollution.
For example, Inhaber estimates that a solar thermal plant (or plants) requires 20 times more steel, 13 times more concrete, twice as much construction labor as a nuclear plant producing the same amount of electricity. In proportion, he adds up the known frequency of industrial deaths and accidents from steel making, from coal mined to make steel, from glass and aluminum, from construction. Then he adds the known pollution effects of producing those materials. (Solar advocates, incidentally, consider this a virtue because the heavy hardware means more industrial jobs.)
Inhaber adds another risk to the "soft" energy sources -- the work-related accidents of a coal-fired back-up plant. Neither windmills nor solar plants are constantly reliable, but most of us still want electricity on windless, cloudy days, so presumably we will insist upon a back-up system which can be easily turned on or shut down, depending on the weather. That means a coal-burning auxiliary generator.
Inhaber does similar calculations for oil and coal which demonstrate, rather dramatically, how dangerous those energy sources are to human life, compared to all others. The safest source, by his calculations, is natural gas -- followed closely by nuclear power.
THAT CLAIM, of course, is where the arguments start. Inhaber's statistics already have been attacked for grossly overestimating the material requirements and, thus, the human risk of windmills. Anti-nuke experts in Canada and elsewhere have savaged Inhaber's claims. The National Research Council of Canada attacked both his methodology and his research as unreal. He underestimates the probabilities of death from a nuclear meltdown and low-level radiation emissions, while he grossly exaggerates the necessary industrial hazards of manufacturing the "soft" alternatives, the critics charge. Some of their complaints sound, strangely enough, like the complaints which the nuclear industry makes when its critics draw scary pictures of a nuclear holocaust in our future.
What are the probabilities of accidental disaster?The question stretches over an infinity of future generations, so that only experts can pretend to know. Inhaber points out that the western industrial nations have now had 2,000 reactor years of operating experience without a meltdown. That doesn't prove a meltdown will never happen. It does imply that the odds are at least more remote than 1 in 2,000.
The anti-nuclear argument responds: That's swell, but suppose the odds are 1-in-5,000 or 1-in-10,000? The more nuclear plants we build, the sooner we will get to the castastrophe. It is an article of faith among nuclear opponents that one catastrophe, anywhere, would close down the whole business. Frightened citizens would march on their neighborhood nuke and insist that it be turned off.
Maybe. It depends. It depends on who gets killed and how many get killed. The nation did not close down coal mines when hundreds of miners died or stop flying on airplaned when the big jets started crashing. The level of risk might simply be absorbed by most folks, as another of life's uncertain elements. Nobody wants to die, but we also don't want to be without electric lights.
So which risk shall we fear the most? The actual ongoing deaths caused by coal and oil? The nearly certain deaths, smaller in number, which will be caused by manufacturing solar and wind power hardware? Or the possibility of truly staggering calamity from a nuclear accident which has never happened, but someday might?
A reasonable person does not wish to choose among these fers, but there's the catch of our modern condition. You must choose. Somebody is going to get killed in order to bring you electricity. The choice involves more than entertaining fears, yet the choice requires calculations which most of us are not equipped to make.
The anti-nuke experts have a wonderful phrase for this predicament. It's a mathematical expression: "the zero-infinity dilemma." The Union of Concerned Scientists explains the "zero-infinity dilemma" for us:
"Zero times infinity is indeterminate. This dilemma prevents the public from being able to reasonably assess the risk: Is the risk negligible because the event may never happen or large because the consequences are so great?"
I think the "zero-infinity dilemma" aptly describes the political confusion of the modern citizen with his infinity of fears and his longing for zero risk. It is a civilizing departure for human society to look far forward into the future and worry about what this scary new technology will do to the grandchildren or the grandchildren's grandchildren. But it is also cheap entertainment -- an easy fear with zero risk in the here-and-now for those of us who are not coal miners.