A 1908 Lesson in Risk and Reward

What Orville Wright can teach us about solving our clean energy problem.

By Bill Budinger

Tagged Climate Changeenergyinnovationnuclear energyrenewable energy

In the early evening of September 17, 1908, a primitive winged contraption rolled onto a field at Fort Myers Army Base in Virginia. At the controls was Orville Wright, who, along with his brother Wilbur, was one of its designers. Sitting next to Orville was 26-year-old Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, an Army observer. The flight was to demonstrate to the Army the utility of the Wrights’ new invention in the hopes the Army might purchase a few.

As some 2,000 people watched, the machine roared down the field, lifted into the crisp fall air, and leveled off at about 150 feet. It turned slowly back over the field and began what was to be its demonstration flight. Then suddenly, everything went wrong. Barely three minutes into the flight, one of the two wooden propellers cracked and flew off the engine. As it departed, it fatally damaged critical parts of the plane. Orville was unable to control the crippled aircraft. It nosed down and crashed in front of the horrified crowd. Both men were pulled from the wreckage and taken to a hospital. Lieutenant Selfridge died a few hours later. After six weeks in the hospital, Orville Wright was released, but he never fully recovered.

That fateful day marked the first fatality in what was to become a long string of fatal aviation accidents, accidents that have killed many thousands of people.  Fortunately, Wright’s plane crashed on the grass field and not on the spectators. Had that propeller failed above the spectators, a schoolyard, or a sporting event, the casualties could have been much worse. And unlike Lt. Selfridge, those casualties on the ground would not have been people who signed up for the risk of flight.

Were such an accident to happen with a new technology today, how would it be handled? Most likely, sensational “what if” reporting and political pressure would demand that the government step in and put a stop to such a dangerous activity. Clearly even one death is one too many.

But that is not what happened in 1908. Times were different then, and people were willing to accept even fatal risks if the potential reward was large enough. So in spite of the accident, the Army gave the Wright Brothers their first contract.

Thus began a new history, as the airplane evolved to become not only an incredible advance in travel and mobility, but also, directly or indirectly, one of the most deadly inventions of the twentieth century—not just because of crashes, but also because of its ability to take down buildings and drop bombs on civilians far behind battle lines. Dangerous? Yes, indeed. Yet even though airplanes are involved in the deaths of hundreds or sometimes thousands of people each year, mile-for-mile, air travel is far and above the safest form of travel we know.

Thinking about the risk-reward of air travel can help us think about how to solve the most perplexing problem of our time—the clean energy dilemma. All the known solutions to producing clean power have risks. So how do we evaluate the risk/reward of each possibility? How do we decide which ones to pursue? Being human, our evaluation of risk is hampered by our tendency to focus on the sensational single event instead of the broader picture. When looking at accidents or “disasters,” we also tend to ignore the reward we were getting from whatever it was that failed. For example, if one were to focus only on crashes, deaths, and disasters, we would quickly conclude that air travel is deadly and must be seriously curtailed. Yet in spite of the danger, people clearly think the reward of air travel is worth taking the risk. Moreover, if one steps back, looks at the full picture, and evaluates the danger of air travel compared to other methods, it becomes clear that putting a halt to air travel would result in more, not fewer, deaths. The relative risk of air travel is lower than other travel options.

The various options available to clean up our energy emissions must be similarly evaluated. In terms of risk, any and all of the commonly available options for generating clean electricity are much less dangerous than the climate disaster we’ll face if we fail to reverse global warming. To effectively tackle climate change, all serious experts agree that we must get as close to zero carbon as possible, and do so as quickly as possible. So our selection standard should be which technologies, when considered in view of their rewards, will get us there fastest with no more risk than is manageable. The good news is that all of the available low-carbon options—all of them—have risk levels much lower than those we tolerate daily with our existing fossil plants, chemical plants, refineries, and even airplanes.

However, one of those available technologies, nuclear power, is thought by many people to be much too problematic for serious consideration. Indeed, some people seemingly believe nuclear power is even more dangerous than global warming. Why do they think so? Probably for two reasons. One is, obviously, the belief that nuclear power plants are somehow connected to nuclear weapons (they are not). The other is that nuclear accidents make for spectacular and sensational reporting. Worse, because radiation is invisible, it is ideal for eyeball-grabbing, fiction-laced, movies and horror shows often masquerading as documentaries. The more frightening the story, the bigger the audience. Both of these reasons surely have exerted a strong influence on how we see nuclear.

But the reality of nuclear power is very different, and it’s borne out by well over a half century of extensive experience. Nuclear power itself is not new. It has been around for more than 60 years, longer than most of us have been alive. The world has some 440 reactors producing electricity, most in their fourth to sixth decade of service. France has gotten 70 to 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear for the last 40 years. Hundreds more reactors power many of the world’s ships and submarines. In all that experience there have been just three noteworthy accidents. Two, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, made for sensational news coverage and caused very expensive damage to the plants. But with the possible exception of one recent lung cancer death in a Fukushima worker, in neither accident was anyone killed or even permanently harmed by radiation.

The one true nuclear “disaster” was Chernobyl. And Chernobyl was indeed a disaster. The plant had been built by the Soviets on the cheap with almost no modern safety measures and not even a proper containment vessel. No Western nation would have permitted such a design on its soil. It eventually failed as many Western scientists had predicted. From the disaster’s meltdown and fires, impartial experts suggest that perhaps as many as 200 people have died from radiation—mostly operators and first responders (that number has been hugely contested, often by those relying on urban legends—none of which can be verified, many of which are easily debunked). And as for cancer in the surrounding area, except for treatable thyroids and some leukemia in highly exposed cleanup workers, there has been no statistically significant increase in cancer. Nor have there have been any abnormal birth defects in children born to exposed women.

Since what is important is relative risk, let’s look at some comparisons. Had Chernobyl been an equivalent series of coal plants, the death and disease rate from their pollution and ash would be orders of magnitude higher than that caused by Chernobyl’s radiation.

Another way to put the Chernobyl disaster in perspective is to compare it to another twentieth-century industrial disaster, Bhopal—a chemical plant owned by Union Carbide. On one summer evening in 1984, the plant leaked some of its chemicals into the environment. The effect was horrendous. The Indian government and independent observers now believe that leak caused the death of at least 15,000 people. Even Union Carbide, which disputes the death figure, admits to 102,000 permanent disabilities. More frightening, India is now seeing serious birth defects in the offspring of exposed women.

Comparing relative risks, the chemical plant disaster at Bhopal was obviously 100 times worse than Chernobyl in almost every way. Strangely, Chernobyl (and Fukushima) moved European politicians enough that they called for the closing of all nuclear plants. Yet no one has called for closing chemical plants—even though there have been far more fatal chemical plant accidents than nuclear. It would appear that the sensational reporting of nuclear accidents has caused us to lose sight of relative risk.

Most experts believe the rewards of nuclear far outweigh the risks. It produces massive quantities of electricity using less space and resources than anything else. The power nuclear produces is on par with the cheapest of any other unsubsidized power. And although this may be hard to believe for many people, on an electricity-produced basis, the data clearly show that it is the safest of all known technologies, usually by orders of magnitude.

Yet in spite of the data, fear of nuclear power is leading some to press for the shutdown of nuclear plants in America and parts of Western Europe. The environmental tragedy is that every nuclear plant that is shut down is replaced not by clean energy but by dirty fossil fuel plants, often newly built to take the load that nuclear plant had been taking. Yes, even today, in spite of global warming concerns and greenhouse gas (GHG) targets, America and Europe are building new fossil fueled power plants to replace nuclear! In fact, in spite of all the talk, all the commitments, and all the mandates, world-wide emissions are going up, not down. And it’s true of almost every country. America has been an exception because we’ve switched from coal to gas. But that GHG reduction will change as we begin closing more nuclear plants. California is an example. In spite of massive investments in renewables, the state’s emissions have risen as it has closed its nuclear plants.

Our challenge is clear. We must do what the Army did in 1908. We must pay more attention to the data and consider the reward that we’ll lose if we do not take risk. And when we look at risk, we must look at the relative risk, the relative risk per kilowatt hour dispatched of the various carbon-free energy sources. We must then weigh that risk against the benefit each would provide, and the speed with which they can be deployed.

The consequences of not halting global warming ASAP are so great that we cannot afford to continue letting our emotions, ideology, or urban legends interfere with our best judgment. We need to dispassionately examine the data, weigh the risks, and then act as quickly as possible to stem the true danger we currently face.

Read more about Climate Changeenergyinnovationnuclear energyrenewable energy

Bill Budinger is a physicist, author, the founder and former CEO of Rodel, Inc., a global manufacturing company, and a lifetime trustee of the Aspen Institute.

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