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Mike Sutton
Mike Sutton
Dr Mike Sutton is the author of 'Nullius in Verba: Darwin's greatest secret'.
Posted in Energy / Nuclear Power

Fukushima and the Curse of the Lucky Monkey Principle

Mar. 12, 2011 4:58 am
Categories: Politics

What do the Fukushima Incident and the Grand National have in common?

In 1967 a horse named Foinavon defied an outsider rank of 100-to-1 odds (starting price) to win the Grand National.In 2009 Mon Mome won the Grand National. And this horse too was a 100-1 starting price outsider. See:

Had you started out in 1960 making a side bet each year at odds of 100-1 on the Grand National that any one of the several 100-1 (starting price) outsiders would win you would be what we British call quid’s-in already. And if you were aiming to be in it for 100 years then you’d still have another 49 years to go. Would you fancy your chances at very good luck over the next 40 odd years given such 100-1 odds on 100-1 outsiders? Of course you would. And that is why no gambling establishment would be so irrational as to make such a bet with you.

But what if we reverse the general betting odds scenario so that the 100-1 odds on any of several other 100-1 odds bets winning is not about winning but losing? Would our governments make such a bet on our behalf where the bet involves a stake of thousands of human lives? You bet they would. Because they already have.

Given enough time, the odds that seem in our favor start to turn against us. Let me explain.

In 2004 the Biologist Richard Dawkins (Dawkins 2004. p 148) wrote about how isolated islands became populated with mainland wildlife because over many years outsiders will win. For example:

‘The point about intercontinental rafting of monkeys, or rodents or anything else, is that it only has to happen once, and the time available for it to happen, in order to have momentous consequences, is way outside what we can grasp intuitively. The odds against a floating mangrove bearing a pregnant female monkey and reaching landfall in any one year may be ten thousand to one against. That sounds tantamount to impossible by the lights of human experience. But given 10 million years it becomes almost inevitable.’

And now for the scary bit. Humans are betting on 'safe, clean, nuclear power'. But Dawkins (2004) goes on to write (p.150) :

‘I can't resist remarking how chilling this kind of 'it only had to happen once' logic becomes when you apply it to contingencies nearer home. The principle of nuclear deterrence, and the only remotely defensible justification for possessing nuclear weapons, is that nobody will dare risk a first strike for fear of massive retaliation. What are the odds against a mistaken missile launch: a dictator who goes mad; a computer system that malfunctions; an escalation of threats that gets out of hand? What are the odds against a terrible mistake, initiating Armageddon? A hundred to one against, within any one year? I would be more pessimistic. We came awfully close in 1963.’

Is nuclear energy a clean safe choice? Iran thinks so - and its government adopts the same argument as other nuclear nations for wanting its own nuclear power plants. How can we argue with their logic when it is the same as our own? And it is exactly this same logic that will enable them to produce nuclear weapons as well. Now what odds, I wonder, would a gambling establishment give me that a rogue state with an irrational government might just decide, one day in the next 100 years, to go all in on a whim?

Nuclear weapons and rogue governments aside, in 1979 the USA came close to disaster with the Three Mile Island incident, which involved a partial meltdown. That had been preceeded by the SL-1 incident in Idaho. In 1986 Russia had the Chernobyl disaster. Earlier than all of the above, we've had the British Winscale incident of 1957 and the Kyshtym disaster of that same year in Russia. Now in 2011 we have the Fukushima incident. That can be evened out to create an average of one serious nuclear reactor incident for every nine years in the 54 years since 1957.

In light of our recent history of mishaps, misfortune and failure to adequately consider tsunami and earthquake effects, the chances of there being a catastrophic nuclear disaster somewhere in the world - as hundreds more reactors are commissioned over the next 50 years - seems as Dawkins suggested to be much less remote than 100-1 against every year. And yet, perversely, they tell us that nuclear energy is the clean, safe, solution.

Japan, which is among the three largest economies on Earth, depends on it for 30 per cent of its power. Is it safe and clean? Even with over 440 commercial reactors world-wide, it is relatively safe and clean today compared with the personal risk of road travel, and the dirt and Co2 from coal fired power plants for example. But, over time, it's only relatively safe - to paraphrase Dirty Harry - "..if ya feeling lucky punk."

The chances of your house burning down are very remote, on average, but you insure your home and its contents against it - just in case - because you would be hard hit if disaster struck. But there is no general insurance that the general population can buy that is worth having against the catastrophe of a nuclear disaster. So why do we dice with it? Why do we let our politicians make the decision to go ahead with it on our behalf? Short termism perhaps?

A team of anonymous gonzo criminologists writing on The Bent Society blog warned us that something like the Fukushima incident would happen. Today they are writing that they “told us so”. See:

Do you agree with them? Is Richard Dawkins right? What , exactly, are the rational arguments that nuclear power is safe and clean?


Dawkins, R. (2004) The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life. London. Orion Books.

Dan Dascalescu
April 17, 2011 at 8:45 pm
Fossil fuels are far deadlier than nuclear power

It's sad to see this repeated fear mongering against nuclear power cropping up on BestThinking.


After the nuclear crisis in Japan, Germany has temporarily shut down 7 reactors and China, which is building more nuclear power plants than the rest of the world combined, has suspended approval for all new facilities.

[...] numbers show catastrophic events are not the leading cause of deaths associated with nuclear power. More than half of all deaths stem from uranium mining. But even when this is included, the overall toll remains significantly lower than for all other fuel sources.

So why do people fixate on nuclear power? "From coal we have a steady progression of deaths year after year that are invisible to us, things like heart attacks, whereas a large-scale nuclear release is a catastrophic event that we are rightly scared about,"

Popular perceptions are wrong. When, in 1975, about 30 dams in central China failed in short succession due to severe flooding, an estimated 230,000 people died. Then fatalities from hydropower far exceed those from all other energy sources.

Thinker's Post
Mike Sutton
April 20, 2011 at 12:41 am

Dear Dan

Fear mongering it may be (I'll get back to that later) but since I do not live in a totalitarian state I am privileged to be able to express my views and to explore different ways of considering risk and irrationality.

You are right to point out that - to date - other energy sources are responsible for many more deaths than nuclear power. In his book "Irrationality" Stuart Sutherland pointed this out in terms of deaths from burning fossil fuels and the toxins left in its ash, deaths on oil rigs, and deaths from oil transportation on the highways, death of coal miners etc. Those arguments are nothing new. Does this mean that you are fear mongering then with your comment about hydropower?

Sutherland pointed out - in making his point that it is irrational to fear nuclear power more than other energy sources that the risk of a major accident killing tens of thousands of English people in the chemical plants and refineries of CanveyIsland is calculated at one in 5,000 per year. The Thames Barrier was designed to have a one in 1,500 chance per year of being overtopped by a freak tide which would kill tens of thousands of people.

Dawkins' new argument is clearly put. Remote odds become a certainty given enough time. This is not something that Sutherland considered. Therefore nuclear power is not what we are told it is. It is not clean and it is not safe. Science must not sleep; therefore, nuclear power is not the answer to our power needs. We need to find something else. I do not think it irrational to point that out. There will be other nuclear meltdowns. Given enough time rogue states will most probably get hold of or make their own nuclear weapons and deploy them. We should not neglect the chains of events we put in motion today simply because the annual risk is small for us.

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