Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the Psychology of Nuclear Power

Part Three

Good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world in which we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (TF&S)

Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic.

David J. C. MacKay, Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air

 My interest in K-K and the psychology of nuclear power was first piqued by a fruitless search of the world’s favorite online bookseller for something, anything, in English and worthy of a read on the debacle of Fukushima Daiichi. Granted, it has only been 18 months since the events of 3/11 and the topic is a monstrous challenge, but what has been written is nothing but bilge. I’m going to pick on one book, Silence Deafening—Fukushima Fallout … A Mother’s Response, by one Kimberly Roberson. No, I haven’t read it, beyond what is available for free at the bookseller, but as the old saw has it, you don’t have to eat an addled egg to know it’s rotten. Here’s the beginning of the blurb on the back cover:

A CALL TO ACTION: Nuclear disasters and lessons learned. Facts are facts. There have been at least three major nuclear power disasters to date: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima Daiichi’s unprecedented three nuclear meltdowns in 2011, the worst in history. … Do we wait for another life threatening catastrophic event, or do we act now?

So facts are facts, are they? What I adore about this pronouncement is that it is immediately followed up by a “fact” that is not a “fact”, but a highly contentious assertion, to put it mildly, that the meltdowns at Daiichi were “the worst in history”. The author’s “logic” appears to be that as there was only one meltdown at Chernobyl and three at Daiichi, Daiichi must therefore have been the world’s worst nuclear accident. It’s a matter of simple maths, you see. “Facts are facts” is one of my most beloved nonsensical expressions, right up there with “common sense”: it seems to obey the law of identity, that A is A, the first of the three classic laws of thought, known since at least the time of Aristotle; indeed it appears to be a tautology, but if your “facts” are not “facts” but “dubious assertions” or “downright lies”, you’re left with a very different pair of tautologies—and we haven’t even touched on the epistemological and historiographical slipperiness of facts. That “facts” might not be facts can be gleaned from the wondrous facts-are-facts.com, where we can learn from one Ursula Seiler that:

Jellyfish are essentially chiming bells that swim in the sea. Large jellyfish consist of entire melodies; small jellyfish individual notes … The increasing numbers of jellyfish appearing for example in the Baltic Sea is … a direct result of the ever-present music pumped out of our radios, department stores, etc. that makes up the soundtrack to our everyday life; this active music-making is chiefly what generates the existence of these creatures. Evidently, then, jellyfish epidemics are chiefly the result of mass-produced music.

Evidently. Or why not try this on for size:
Evidently, then, mass-produced music is chiefly the result of jellyfish epidemics.
It’s about as logical back-to-front as front-to-back. But to revisit the blurb:

There have been at least three major nuclear power disasters to date: Three Mile Island in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and Fukushima Daiichi’s unprecedented three nuclear meltdowns in 2011, the worst in history.

One of the fascinating consequences of Daiichi, and one that has gone wholly unremarked, is that it gave the world not one but two triptychs of calamity. To deal with this one first: notice how the word “three” recurs thrice in the sentence above—three disasters, one of which was Three Mile Island, and three reactor meltdowns at Daiichi. The triptych of calamity even embeds the word “three” within it: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. This is as fine an example as you’ll come across of the Rule of Three at work, a rule to which I ascribe an almost mystical power—take the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, and the world’s three monotheistic religions, for instance, or the three states of matter, gas, solid, and liquid, the three states of time, past, present, and future, the three primary colors, red, blue, and green, and the abundance of triumvirates, trilogies, and triunes, triads, troikas, and trinities, triplicities, tricoleurs, and hendiatris in our languages. The Rule of Three is, aside from my awful affection for alliteration (and a fondness for parenthetical asides), the only artifice I consciously employ in what I write, and if you’ve read this trio (so far) of posts from the start, you’ll have come across the Rule of Three at its merrily silent work, ooh, somewhere between 33 and 333 times already—although I’ll give you 3,333-to-one against that you’ll have noticed.

So, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima—these are the Big Three nuclear calamities, then, this is a true triptych, yes? Ah, no, at least not if we accept the validity of the inevitably subjective International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) of the IAEA, with the caveat that the IAEA is incorrigibly pro-nuclear. Chernobyl and Fukushima are rated “level seven: major accident”, the highest rating, but Three Mile Island is rated only “level five: accident with wider consequences”, a rating it shares with four other incidents, most of which will be unfamiliar to you in a way that Three Mile Island is not. But there’s a solitary “level six: serious accident”—the Kyshtym disaster in the (then) Soviet Union, on 29 September, 1957—so the true triptych should read Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Fukushima. Why don’t you—in all likelihood—know anything about Kyshtym? Well, first and foremost because the Soviet Union in the 1950s was not the most open—or safety conscious—of societies. Indeed, the accident is only known as Kyshtym because the east Ural city where it actually occurred, Ozyorsk (aka Chelyabinsk-40), was a closed city not on any maps, and while it now has a cartographical presence, it remains a closed city to this day, and it took some six months for news of the accident to filter out. Second, because 1957 is such an awfully long time ago, and because of the recency bias, our evolved human psychology is inclined to overweight the significance of recent events and underweight remote ones. And third, because unless you are a Russian speaker, you can’t pronounce “Kyshtym” (I believe it’s close to “Kuishtoim”), and words you can’t pronounce you can’t easily remember. Incidentally, you probably can’t pronounce “Chernobyl” either, but you think you can, and that’s good enough, whereas the unfamiliar Kyshtym, with its wall of consonants, looks unpronounceable, and that’s enough to intimidate.

So let’s compare the false triptych and the true:
Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima
Kyshtym, Chernobyl, Fukushima

Do you notice anything? In the false, the accidents are spread geographically across three continents, the Americas, Europe, and Asia, and occur in two of the world’s three largest economies and (what was then part of) its largest country. In the true, two out of the three occur in the chronically closed and safety-contemptuous Soviet Union. Perceptions shift. These are, loosely and laterally, what Kahneman calls framing effects: put simply, the great difference in your reaction immediately before an operation you are about to undergo on being told either that that the survival rate is 90% or the mortality rate is 10%.

What if we add in the dates?
Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), Fukushima (2011)
Kyshtym (1957), Chernobyl (1986), Fukushima (2011)

Perceptions shift again: while the false triptych suggests a run-rate of a “serious” or “major” accident once a decade, as recency bias blocks out the nuclear quarter-century before 1979, the true suggests a run-rate of every couple of decades. This doesn’t mean that we should necessarily expect any run-rate, given the paucity of the denominator in the equation “cumulative years of safe global nuclear power plant operation divided by serious or major accident”, simply that this is how we psychologically perceive a run-rate.

An admittedly crude way of looking at historical accident rates is to assign the 25 INES level four to seven nuclear accidents that have involved far-field radiation releases since the dawn of the nuclear age a point score—say 5pts for a level four accident, 10pts for a level five, 15pts for a level six, and 25pts for a level seven—and break them out over the decades. Then we multiply by a thousand and divide by total net installed nuclear electrical capacity at end-decade to get a very rough metric of accident severity per megawatt, decade by decade.

1940s: 5pts (no commercial reactors in operation in 1949)
1950s: 50pts = 50,000 ÷ 548MW = 91.2
1960s: 40pts = 40,000 ÷ 14,121MW = 2.8
1970s: 40pts = 40,000 ÷ 117,814MW = 0.34
1980s: 40pts = 40,000 ÷ 311,942MW = 0.13
1990s: 5pts = 5,000 ÷ 347,368MW = 0.0144
2000s: 0pts  NA
2010s (to date): 25pts = 25,000 ÷ 370,705MW (end-2009) = 0.0674

You don’t have to be Sherlock to notice a trend. However, if you don’t want to have any truck with the pro-nuclear IAEA’s INES, there’s an alternative: the nuclear accident magnitude scale (NAMS) developed by nuclear-skeptic David Smythe, professor of geophysics at Glasgow University. Here I add up the cumulative magnitudes, decade by decade, of the 17 INES level four to seven nuclear accidents for which he has been able to calculate a NAMS magnitude of severity and again multiply by a thousand and divide by total net installed nuclear electrical capacity at end-decade.

1940s: 3.8 (no commercial reactors in operation in 1949)
1950s: 21.4 = 21,400 ÷ 548MW = 39.1
1960s: 23.1 = 23,100 ÷ 14,121MW = 1.64
1970s: 16.9 = 16,900 ÷ 117,814MW = 0.143
1980s: 8.0 = 8,000 ÷ 311,942MW = 0.026
1990s: 4.8 = 4,800 ÷ 347,368MW = 0.0138
2000s: 0  NA
2010s (to date): 7.5 = 7,500 ÷ 370,705MW (end-2009) = 0.0202

The trend remains unchanged. (We might also observe here that there has never been an INES level four to level seven accident involving any reactor that started commercial operations after 1980 and only one that started after 1975 [Fukushima Daiichi No. 4].)

Let’s turn to the other triptych of calamity, this one wholly home-grown: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Fukushima. Note the sibilant smoothness, punctuated by the repeated “shima”, with which the trio of four-syllable words trip off the tongue. This triptych is having a hugely potent effect on the Japanese psyche, with mayors from Daiichi-afflicted towns being invited last summer and this to address memorial services at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here’s an excerpt from a Japan Times article (August 28) by one Michael Hoffman, preposterously titled Complacency perished in the Fukushima nuclear disaster (as if the dirt of complacency had been simply wiped clean from the Japanese or human mind):

Neither the victims of Fukushima Prefecture’s triple meltdown in March 2011 nor the aging survivors of the world’s only two wartime atom bombings are letting that [the issue of nuclear devastation in peacetime] pass.
“In terms of being nuclear victims, we are the same,” Hiroshima survivor Sunao Tsuboi, 87, told the AFP news agency.
“In my mind, Fukushima is like a third nuclear victim, following Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” added Fukushima evacuee Sachiko Sato.
Nuclear devastation in peace is war, a 90-year-old Buddhist nun named Jakucho Setouchi goes so far as to say. Setouchi is a writer of considerable reputation whose collected works, published in 2002, run to 20 volumes. Speaking to Shukan Asahi magazine, she said, “The earthquake and tsunami were natural disasters, but (TEPCO’s Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant) was a manmade disaster, and therefore the same as war.”
War happens when it is allowed to happen; ditto nuclear disasters. “The atmosphere today,” says Setouchi, “is exactly like 1941, ’42.” Back then, the public and mass media bought the official line that Japan’s victory was assured. In our own time, the public and mass media bought the official line that the safety of nuclear power was assured.

Leaving aside the grotesque syllogistic lapses (to say that all wars are manmade disasters, Fukushima was a manmade disaster, and therefore Fukushima was war is no different, (il)logically, from claiming that all cats are mammals, a cow is a mammal, and therefore a cow is a cat—this is the fallacy of the undistributed middle), it must seem the height of fatuity to the pro-nuclear power brigade—as it does to this more disinterested observer—to dare to mention Fukushima in the same breath as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is not for a moment to gloss over or belittle the very real torment, fear, and anxiety suffered by the 150,000 or so people whose lives and livelihoods were disrupted by Fukushima Daiichi, but this disruption lies at the far, far end of the wide, wide spectrum of human suffering from instant and involuntary vaporization. It just does. Nevertheless, instead of whining about this new triptych, it might be more productive to do some explaining of it. A useful pointer, I think, can be found in Stephen Pinker’s epic and hard to refute The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, whose counterintuitive thesis is that we live in the most peaceful epoch of the history of our species.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the culmination of the very interstate-violent short century of the Empire of Japan (1868-1945). It’s worth reviewing, briefly, that violence with some rough tallies of mortality. Killing kicks off with the civil strife of the Boshin War, (1868-1869, 3,000 deaths). A lull ensues until the First Sino-Japanese War and annexation of Taiwan (1894-1895, 50,000 deaths), followed by the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905, 140,000 deaths) and the annexation of Korea (1910, deaths unknown). Then comes the Japanese involvement in World War I, 1914-1915, the seizure of German New Guinea, and the Siberian Expedition (1918-1922, 5,000 deaths). In the depths of the Great Depression come the invasion of Manchuria and establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo, 1932. Then there are the two almost forgotten but history-changing confrontations with the Soviet Union, the Battle of Lake Khasan, 1938, and Battle of Khalkhin Gol/Nomonhan Incident, 1939, a “four-month long small war that … cost no fewer than 30,000 and perhaps as many as 65,000 casualties on both sides” (Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939). The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) bleeds into Pacific Theater in World War II (1941-1945), with around 18mn civilian and 6mn military deaths, of which Japan accounted for perhaps a million civilian and two million military deaths. So Imperial Japan was at war for 22 of the 52 years between 1894 and 1945 and preparing for, or recovering from war, for many of the rest, with a combined home islands death toll of maybe four million. And the death toll in interstate violence in the 66—and counting—years of peace between 1946 and the present? Zero. Very few major states have witnessed such a precipitous decline in interstate violence, and were we to investigate the plethora of forms of intrastate violence, from assassination as a political tool and state-sanctioned capital punishment to humdrum murder, rape, and robbery, we’d find similar pictures of precipitous decline.

With the gradual disappearance of violence, in all its forms, from Japanese society, there has concomitantly arisen the myth of safety—the myth that complex electromechanical systems such as trains, aircraft, and yes, nuclear power plants can simply never fail, despite being designed, built, and operated by ever-fallible humans. If the nuclear establishment was a willing purveyor of this myth, then the public was a willing buyer of it. Recently there has been a contretemps, with unpleasant nationalist overtones, about the deployment of the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor V/STOL aircraft in Japan in general but in Okinawa in particular, and the phrase of reassurance most routinely trotted out by politicians seeking to pave the way for deployment is that the Ospreys will not fly until “safety has been confirmed”. To be sure, the original Japanese expression, anzen wo kakunin, is an elusive one, and “kakunin” could be interpreted as falling just shy of “confirm”, but can there be anyone gullible enough to swallow the proposition that any aircraft could plausibly be declared unambiguously safe?

(to be continued)

(with thanks to A.E. for the Kyshtym tip-off)

About these ads

34 responses to “Kashiwazaki Turkish Culture Village and the Psychology of Nuclear Power

  1. “it must seem the height of fatuity to the pro-nuclear power brigade—as it does to this more disinterested observer—to dare to mention Fukushima in the same breath as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is not for a moment to gloss over or belittle the very real torment, fear, and anxiety suffered by the 150,000 or so people whose lives and livelihoods were disrupted by Fukushima Daiichi, but this disruption lies at the far, far end of the wide, wide spectrum of human suffering from instant and involuntary vaporization. It just does.”

    Thank you! Yes, I am also sick of the specious analogies with Hiroshima and Nagasaki that really don’t hold any validity beyond the superficial “nuclear” connection.

  2. Isn’t the problem with Daniel Kahneman’s and Stephen Pinker’s books that they both adopt the impossibly lofty perspective of the wise and worldly observer? When you or I succumb to confirmation bias or ignore the law of small numbers or assume that we are living through the most violent of times, we are doing what comes naturally. I think that the question left unanswered by the books you refer to is why these illusions feel so natural. Here’s a guess. Humans are selected to function best in small groups. Rational actors in small, gossipy groups do not fare well. Irrational actors, who cling to absurd, but groupish ideas prosper (evolutionarily speaking). It seems to require a huge effort of will, and a denial of what one feels instinctually, to evaluate the real consequences of, say, Fukushima. The same point could be made about any counterintuitive fact, for example, that space-time is curved, not flat or that social security harms the poor. Perhaps this is why, to anyone who troubles (as you have done) to do the relevant research, everyone else seems stupid? They are, of course, but maybe not in exactly the way you imply in this post which, as always, I adored.

    • “Isn’t the problem with Daniel Kahneman’s and Stephen Pinker’s books that they both adopt the impossibly lofty perspective of the wise and worldly observer?”
      Well, are we really so far away from the summits of intellectual achievement that Kahneman and Pinker seem to us to represent? Aren’t we, by reading and–if possible–digesting what they say, dragging our base selves with a gasp and a puff of effort half a rung up the ladder of understanding? Isn’t that essentially what has been happening, in sad fits and starts, since at least Aristotle? Is there anything more we can do? And doesn’t Pinker, if you take him seriously (and I’m very tempted to), offer a convincing case that we are making some headway, with the help of everyone from Bertrand Russell to Bruce Springsteen? In 1923, at the time of the Tokyo earthquake, you would not have wanted to have been a Korean in Tokyo (your “irrational actors, who cling to absurd, but groupish ideas [who] prosper” saw to that). In 2011, your irrational groupish actors didn’t really have much to say.
      “It seems to require a huge effort of will, and a denial of what one feels instinctually, to evaluate the real consequences of, say, Fukushima.”
      Oh yes, which is why there is so much tripe out there. And that is fascinating and the subject for further posts. But Fukushima is certainly much less important than racial hatred, it’s a mere public policy debate. A very intense one, to be sure, but not one that will have anyone reaching for weapons (I think…) Anyway, Kahneman *knows* all this. But we can discuss this more anon.

  3. I can’t find any moral separation between the two atomic bombings and LeMay’s overall firebombing campaign that was waged directly against the Japanese people in 1945.

    The 509th’s means were certainly more efficient, but were not departures from the same murderous intent, indiscriminate effects and human suffering therefrom (other than the lingering genetic damage from the a-bombs, that was a qualitative difference) of the prior B-29 firebombing attacks throughout Japan

    As for TMI, I’m not particularly sure I can believe Arnie Gundersen, but he asserts that the system covered up radionuclide release from TMI, only measuring what they wanted to measure and otherwise systematically minimizing the reports.

    http://www.nirs.org/reactorwatch/accidents/tmipowerpoint.pdf

    During the 3/11 crisis I was [in "real-time"] following the periodic reports from TEPCO concerning their perimeter monitoring stations, and was struck at the time at how they were filtering which perimeter station results to publish to the web depending on which way the wind was blowing.

    I was also wondering where the tons of seawater they were pumping directly into their messed-up reactor vessels was flowing to. They later said they found it in the turbine buildings, but it’s safe to say a lot also ended up in the ocean.

    To cut this short, I think there’s a lot of bullshit about nuclear power from both sides. The truth may not be in the middle, but it’s certainly close to what has happened already in Fukushima, Kashiwazaki, and Tokaimura, and that’s bad enough.

    Japan should massively invest in alternative energy — solar, wind, tidal, and especially geothermal.

    The good news, is that with their declining population, Japan probably doesn’t actually need any new capacity any more ; )

    http://www.ipss.go.jp/pp-newest/e/ppfj02/t_1_e.html

    shows that Japan’s working-age population should be leaving the 8000万台 level this year and the 7000万台 level in 2030, a 12.5% tailwind for energy savings at least.

    (that table shows Japan’s seniors will rise from 30M to ~35M, but counter-balancing this 5M increase is the 4M decline of youngsters, from ~17M to 13M . . . have I mentioned yet that I actually rather like — from the economics viewpoint — Japan’s demographic prospect?)

    • “I can’t find any moral separation between the two atomic bombings and LeMay’s overall firebombing campaign that was waged directly against the Japanese people in 1945.”

      Interesting–neither have I ever been able to. And can we even draw a fine gradation of suffering between dying slowly of 1st/2nd-degree burns as a result of the firebombing of Tokyo and dying slowly of acute radiation syndrome as a result of the atom-bombing of Hiroshima? But still, it’s not hard to see why Hiroshima and Nagasaki got all the attention.

      “I’m not particularly sure I can believe Arnie Gundersen”

      I’m certainly not.

      “Japan should massively invest in alternative energy — solar, wind, tidal, and especially geothermal.”

      Sounds nice. I dealt with geothermal already. If I had all night, I’d deal with the others, but briefly–solar PV no space, really no space, wind a bit more space but it blows onshore mostly in the wrong places (Hokkaido and Aomori). Offshore wind possibly but very expensive if you want your wind-ware to be typhoon-proof, tsunami-proof, and rust-proof. Tidal resources–not exactly the Bay of Fundy. Next time you hear someone prattling on vapidly about “Japan’s abundant renewable resources”, such as Amory Lovins (“Japan is poor in fuels, but is the richest of all major industrial countries in renewable energy”—all together now, pantomime style, Oh no it’s not!) just raise a quizzical eyebrow and ask them the good old “WH” questions, who, where, why, how, and how much?

      “The good news, is that with their declining population, Japan probably doesn’t actually need any new capacity any more ; )”

      Sadly, it does, because we’ll have more and more earth-hating singletons (!) around—total dwellings don’t peak until 2015 and we may even be pushing that out to 2020. And then you have to get the cars on the grid. And even at measly 0.5% growth, your economy is 20% bigger by 2050 vs. 2010. Assume a doubling of electricity capacity to decarbonize. Of course, if it’s business as usual and gas where you can get it (which is very likely), the numbers change. But you fry your kids and grandkids—sorry ’bout that.

      • solar PV no space, really no space

        Australia’s got space, and twice the peak insolation of Minamitorishima. . .

        My general impression about everything is a simple failure of national will.

        We (Japan, US, UK, . . .) are just not able to get our act together, be on the same page, and go kick some ass, like it was 70 years ago.

        Not that Japan needs to send the Hyuga and Ise to attack Darwin again, but I would think Japan could find better uses for its $1T cashpile in Treasuries rather than the measly 2-3% we’re printing up for them each year.

        Maybe if the BOJ stops buying treasuries the yen will go to 50 and Japan won’t have to worry about the price of oil any more . . .

      • “Australia’s got space, and twice the peak insolation of Minamitorishima. . .”

        Now that’s lateral thinking for you! I was worrying that for serious desert photovoltaics, we’d have to use the Gobi, or at a pinch the Taklamakan, but there might be, erm, historical issues there. What price the Senkakus again? But you’ve solved it–the Great Simpson and the Gibson are ours for the taking. After all, Australia is practically an East Asian colony already, and it’s having only c20mn people versus c1.3bn is certainly a ginormous advantage. Couple of hefty high-voltage direct-current lines on the seabed from Darwin to Fukuoka (only c6,000km, transmission losses of only c30%) and we’re sorted! (You might think I’m joking but I’m not.)

        “My general impression about everything is a simple failure of national will.”

        It’s more subtle than that, don’t you feel? Kicking ass 70 years ago was easy—in nation-state ideologies—when there was a clear and present enemy to be faced. Now we have a global enemy that requires the transcendence of the nation-state, to say nothing of its (and our human) associated historical baggage of racism and ethnocentrism and parochialism—which is what, I fear, we were evolutionarily designed for—see Dunbar’s Number.

        “Maybe if the BOJ stops buying treasuries the yen will go to 50 and Japan won’t have to worry about the price of oil any more . . .”

        Not going to happen, Toyota wouldn’t let it…

      • Toyota wouldn’t let it

        not entirely apropos to that, but here’s a chart:

        http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/?g=all

        red is working-age population, blue is employment, green is % in mfg

  4. Awesome post . Thank you

  5. Off hand comment, if the prevailing winds had been on shore. Fukushima would have been a 10-100 times worse than it was. As it was most of the fallout ended up in the Pacific. There is a lot of iodine, cesium and potassium in seawater, so dilution is great. On land not so much.

    One thing that is apparent is the economics of nuclear power isn’t nearly as great as assumed. And getting worse if you discount the hand waving of the industry boosters and look at actual quotes for new plants, it’s running $3000-6000/kw.

    As an aside, striking to me is how little geothermal energy Japan has exploited considering, rough googling says something like 10-20% of Japan’s electric power could be generated by geothermal. Not everything but makes you wonder why the Japanese were building nuclear plants when they had geothermal resources left to be tapped. It’s certainly cheaper per kWh than nuclear without the hassle.

    • “If the prevailing winds had been on shore. Fukushima would have been a 10-100 times worse than it was.”
      We heard that a lot at the time from some quarters. I’ll refrain from commenting without going and looking at the data again. These posts aren’t supposed to be primarily about whether nuclear power is A Good Thing or A Bad Thing (there’s plenty out there you can read about that, most of it codswallop) but about how nuclear power works or doesn’t work with our psychologies (and there isn’t much you can read out there on that). Sometimes, however, I let myself down and enter into the other debate–it’s really, really, hard to resist (and that is a product of our psychologies, too).
      “One thing that is apparent is the economics of nuclear power isn’t nearly as great as assumed.”
      That is a very, very difficult question indeed. It depends to a large degree on how you price carbon, which will result from how much significance you attach to anthropogenic climate change.
      Here’s a Bloomberg article from yesterday that might just give you some pause for thought (sadly I can’t upload the chart itself into the comments):

      Japan Pollutes More Even as Power Output Falls: Chart of the Day
      By Jacob Adelman and Tsuyoshi Inajima
      Sept. 3—Japan’s pollution footprint surged to a record high even as electricity production dropped after utilities burned more oil and coal since nuclear reactors were shut following the March 2011 earthquake.
      The CHART OF THE DAY shows power utilities increased carbon-dioxide emissions by 17 percent to 439 million metric tons in the fiscal year through March 2012 even as electricity output decreased 5 percent, according to data provided by the companies. Japan was the world’s fifth-biggest emitter of carbon-dioxide in 2009, the last year for which International Energy Agency data is available.
      Japan’s energy use dropped after the meltdown of three reactors at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi atomic station, as lights were dimmed and escalators turned off in Tokyo to avoid blackouts after the sudden loss of electricity.
      That failed to translate to lower carbon emissions as utilities burned more fossil fuels to replace atomic power. Only two of Japan’s 50 functioning reactors, all of which were idled for safety checks since the disaster, have been permitted to resume operation.
      “In terms of C02 emissions per kilowatt hour, nuclear is the lowest of the large-scale fuel sources,” said Paul Scalise, a research fellow specializing in energy issues at the University of Tokyo. “Take away nuclear power and you’ve got a serious problem.”
      Oil, gas and coal accounted for 79 percent of the electricity generated by Japan’s 10 major utilities in the 12 months ended March, compared with 59 percent a year earlier, according to data from the Federation of Electric Power Companies. Nuclear power in the same period dropped to 13 percent of the total, from 33 percent in the previous period.
      Japan, which has few energy sources of its own outside coal and hydropower, began operating its first commercial nuclear reactor in 1966 to increase its energy security. Before the Fukushima disaster, Japan was the world’s third-biggest user of nuclear power, after the U.S. and France.

      Now those extra FY3/12 emissions will in all probability raise the global temperature not even 0.01% by 2100, but it is emphatically not a step forward. There are no easy decisions. (BTW, the chart shows CO2 emissions rising from 319mn MT in FY3/00 to 439mn in FY3/12, with the recent low coming in FY3/10 at c360mn, but bear in mind there was a nationwide nuclear operating rate of around 30% [off the top of my head] in FY3/12, whereas it will be closer to 5% in FY3/13, so CO2 emissions are destined to rise further.)

      “As an aside, striking to me is how little geothermal energy Japan has exploited considering, rough googling says something like 10-20% of Japan’s electric power could be generated by geothermal. Not everything but makes you wonder why the Japanese were building nuclear plants when they had geothermal resources left to be tapped. It’s certainly cheaper per kWh than nuclear without the hassle.”

      Aah, geothermal—hot rocks! I’m glad you asked. Here’s a comment from Paul Scalise, possibly the best-versed foreigner in Japan energy issues, from about a year ago:

      Why does one of the world’s most volcanic locations only have 16 operating geothermal plants with a total installed capacity of barely 530 MW and generating less than 0.3% of Japan’s total kilowatt-hours sold?
      Geothermal seems to be a thought-provoking challenge to the conventional wisdom about who controls whom in the political economy of electric power in Japan because the conclusions are so counter-intuitive.

      Before nuclear power became increasingly attractive to Japanese actors in the wake of the 1973 oil shock, there was the promotion of geothermal power plants. The first commercially operated geothermal plant was built in Italy in 1904, followed by New Zealand in 1958, and the United States in 1960. When geothermal power was floated in Japan as a commercial source in the early 1960s, MITI, LDP politicians, Japanese power companies, and local host communities all welcomed the technology.

      It was considered relatively attractive by Japanese electric power companies, because it was a base-load power source that could operate 24-hours a day; it was easily “dispatchable” by power companies unlike intermittent sources today like solar and wind, so there was no threat to the grid; and obviously it was in abundant supply in Japan. The story is even more interesting today because it is a “renewable power source” that is relatively clean in terms of CO2-eq/kWh emissions (much better than solar and wind), has a high utilization rate (85%+), has a fairly long life cycle, and has a much lower marginal generation cost per kWh than solar or wind assuming similar costs of capital and depreciation schedules.

      So what happened?

      Odake was Kyushu EPCO’s first geothermal plant in Oita Prefecture. After about 10 years of “eminent domain” siting problems and construction issues, it started operations in 1967 with an installed capacity of 12.5 MW (a small test case). According to interviews with Kyushu EPCO, everything was fine in the beginning.

      Then, a local hot spring (onsen) owner started to publicly criticize Odake, Kyushu EPCO, and the government claiming that they were destroying his business.

      Geothermal plants have to be built close to the source or the high-temperature steam is lost in the pipes the farther it is transported. Odake engineers had to drill approximately 300~500 feet into the earth right above the exact site in order to hit the appropriate heat pockets. The neighboring hot spring’s depth was about 100 feet. The surrounding geothermal sources were swallowed up by Odake and left the neighboring hot spring inoperable. What followed next was a successful local media campaign by hot spring interests groups against Odake, Kyushu EPCO, and the government arguing that geothermal plants would destroy Japan’s traditional way of life and local communities. Protests ensued.

      MITI worked with the Japanese EPCOs to site better locations over long lead-times (about 10 years per site) in the 1970s and 1980s, but ultimately what destroyed geothermal’s chances vis-à-vis other sources was not a “nuclear village” stifling geothermal’s growth or “big oil” crushing the little guy; it was the logistics of geothermal itself. The installed capacity tends to be in the 20 MW to 50 MW range. The average conventional thermal plant using fossil fuels tends to be in the 500 MW to 1,000 MW range. In order to replace just one conventional plant with geothermal sources, a power company would have needed to build 20 geothermal plants in surrounding locations to match the output of just one conventional or nuclear power plant.

      After the hot-spring owners lobbied successfully with media help against geothermal power plants in the 1960s, it became difficult to site geothermal plants in Kyushu and Tohoku (areas with the largest magmatic heat sources). Today, some people advocate drilling in the national parks to avoid this issue, but they also are opposed by various environmental interests who are very concerned about how drilling and exploration will affect the ecosystem.

      I appeared on a program for the BBC World News discussing the political economy of geothermal power last year. One Japanese institute’s analyst appearing with me had estimated geothermal could produce approximately 10% of Japan’s total electric power needs – mostly in the Tohoku EPCO and Kyushu EPCO service regions — if it were not for the objections of hot-spring owners and environmental lobbyists.

      I hate to demur to an authority like Paul Scalise, but I think he has some of his sums and perspectives a little awry. But we won’t dwell on that or we’d be here all night.

      You have to take it from the top:
      Japan installed electricity capacity: c280GW
      Conventionally accepted maximum geothermal capacity (at 150C plus): 23.47GW
      That seems to come from this Ministry of the Environment report here (Japanese):
      http://www.env.go.jp/earth/report/h22-02/full.pdf
      (see p156)
      That’s where your c10% comes from.
      Now for the bad news.
      83% of that 24GW is in national/quasi-national parks (see p174)
      71% of it is on Hokkaido (my maths, see p175)
      Most of the geothermal on Hokkaido is in just two national parks (my eyesight test on the maps around p175), the Daisetsuzan and the Shiretoko Hanto. Shiretoko is a World Heritage Site. UNESCO won’t be too happy about massive geothermal facilities there. Of course, if push really comes to shove…
      More bad news about geothermal—it’s not actually all that sustainable in many cases away from “hotspots”, because you are sucking heat out of rocks that do not have a ready source to replenish that heat. If you want to know more, download (for free!) Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air, written by an avowed environmentalist (who also happens to be a physics professor at Cambridge University) here:
      http://www.withouthotair.com/download.html
      and turn to p96.
      A METI research committee in 2009, pre-Fukushima, put geothermal reserves that could be exploited by 2020 at Y20kW/h at 1.13mn KW = 1.13GW. That’s still less than 1% of demand. Bureaucratic inertia, to be sure, but I hope you’re beginning to appreciate the obstacles involved.
      Now post-Fukushima and in the very recently announced Renewable Energy Plan
      http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/nn20120901a1.html
      The goal is to increase geothermal to 3.88GW by 2030. That’s still less than 2% of total demand, and there seem to be no detailed plans about how to get there from here:
      http://www.env.go.jp/annai/kaiken/h24/s0831.html (J only – this is the “Plan”)
      Oh, and by the way—a zero-carbon society by 2050 will require a doubling or tripling of current electricity capacity.
      There are no easy answers.

      • “because you are sucking heat out of rocks that do not have a ready source to replenish that heat”

        that depends on how deep you drill . . .

        http://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/2201465/chile-hails-groundbreaking-deep-geothermal-well

        (I know less than nothing about geothermal, other than the heat energy to be found under my feet is sufficient for my needs at least . . .)

      • 12MW, eh? That really is just a rounding error to K-K, at 8,212MW… Put it another way, you’d need 700 or so of those geothermal plants to make one K-K’s nameplate output.

        And this is a classic piece of PR flim-flammery:

        “The company said the production well, Tol-4, was drilled to a depth of 2,300 metres and is producing high temperature steam sufficient to generate 12MW of electrical energy, enough to supply the power needs for 45,000 households.”

        Imagine–45,000 households’ power needs all covered by this wonderful geothermal plant! Oh, but wait a minute–no! That’s not the “power needs” of the households, it doesn’t cover their heating (probably), transport (certainly), their workplace energy requirements (certainly), or anything else. Your “power needs”, SEWTHA estimates on p329 in a section titled “annoying units”(!), are 24x times your home’s electricity consumption (in the developed world).

        (Incidentally, this well would only cover the household electricity requirements of about 24,000 households in the UK and about 12,000 in the US).

        The sad truth that few will acknowledge is that we have, as a species, bred ourselves into a right pickle with two centuries of cheap coal and cheap oil…  

      • That’s that goes a ways to explaining why such low development, far more response than my lowly comment deserves. I’ll mark it down then to, the opportunity to make a dime wasn’t enough to overcome the usual nimbyist objections. Sort of like the ban on drilling oil in some areas off the coast of California, it’s successful because the amount and quality of oil is low as is the expected return. It’s not like the neckbeards and tree huggers are going to keep us from tapping into a field the size of the one under Long Beach.

        I suspect as well that anytime you develop a unique technology, you have large upfront costs and and often a painful learning curve. The Geysers in California is a couple of Gigawatts worth. Not much in the big scheme of things. The advantage there is they tap into large porous reservoir of dry steam which made the design and development of those plants much easier than elsewhere. Take away that and the US is as bad or worse than Japan.

      • “Far more response than my lowly comment deserves”
        No, no, not at all, sometime a “lowly comment” can encourage one to do some hunting and emerge (hopefully) better informed.
        “I suspect as well that anytime you develop a unique technology, you have large upfront costs and and often a painful learning curve”
        No need to suspect that, it’s pretty much a given–and something I’ll discuss in relation to nuclear power and the planning fallancy in a later post in the series.
        But the tapping of geothermal hot-spots, at least, is not AFAIK a desperately new or complex technology. Deep geothermal at non-hotspots, where depths of 15km seem to be optimal, is another matter.
        “Take away that and the US is as bad or worse than Japan.”
        But the US has so much space for solar photovoltaics and wind. In those respects, you’ll find “energy independence” easier to come by when the hydrocarbons run out.

    • Oh, and in an aside, as a delicious irony, Japanese companies, as you might expect in a field of geomechanical engineering, seem to be dominant in certain aspects of the geothermal industry (bear in mind though that this is Nikkei propaganda and not to be trusted absolutely without more research):

      Japan Firms Steam Ahead In Geothermal Turbines

      TOKYO (Nikkei, September 1)-Three Japanese companies dominate the global market for the turbines used in geothermal power plants, with a combined share of 70%, and they expect to get more orders amid red-hot demand for such plants.
      The three companies are Fuji Electric Co. (6504), Toshiba Corp. (6502) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (7011).
      Unlike other renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, geothermal power does not depend on the weather. The average geothermal plant operates at around 70% of capacity, much higher than the 12% typical at solar power plants and 20% at wind farms.
      Between 2010 and 2015, total generating capacity for geothermal power plants worldwide is forecast to surge 70% to 18.5 million kilowatts.
      Fuji Electric alone holds about 40% of the global market for geothermal steam turbines, based on sales over the last decade. The company delivered equipment for the world’s largest geothermal plant in New Zealand in 2010. And in April, Fuji Electric announced a 10 million dollar investment in a geothermal project in California’s Imperial Valley, near the border with Mexico.
      Shigeto Yamada, the general manager in charge of the company’s geothermal power business, has spent more than 30 years pitching the company’s products around the world. Yamada is convinced the recent robust global demand for geothermal power plants will continue. “Our longtime efforts to boost the geothermal power business step-by-step are finally beginning to bear fruit,” he said.

    • Just one more thing–I was thinking of starting a “Japan Energy Blog”, because although goodness knows I don’t know much, I can learn on the job and would be more informative than most sources out there. Would anyone be interested?

      • I, for one, would be extremely interested. Then again, Spike Japan is always an exciting and thought-provoking read so I’d automatically and quite selfishly jump at the offer of “more.” (I’m a recent graduate in Japanese studies and the posts and comments here always give me much to think and read about… as well as constantly reminding me that I really need to develop some solid research skills).

      • Thank you. “I really need to develop some solid research skills”. Me too…

    • So I insinuated earlier this week that there wouldn’t be any geothermal development in national and quasi-national parks. How wrong I was–here’s today’s Nikkei:

      Japan Set For 1st Geothermal Plant In National Park
      TOKYO (Nikkei)–Idemitsu Kosan and Inpex are poised for approval to begin work on a geothermal power plant in Akita Prefecture, the first to be built in a national park.
      Drilling in Kurikoma Park will begin as early as this fall. The plant will have an output of 30,000kw to 70,000kw.
      Having supported solar and wind power, the government is focusing next on underground heat — a more reliable energy source.
      In April, after years of restricting geothermal projects on parkland out of concern for the environment, the government proposed five sites for development. One was Akita’s Oyasu region, part of Kurikoma Park. The local community agreed in July to go ahead with the project. National approval is expected soon. (abridged)
      Japan could theoretically produce 23.47 million kilowatts of geothermal electricity, the third-biggest output in the world. But it has only about 540,000kw of geothermal capacity in place. Worries about damaging hot springs and tourism have held back the development of this energy source.

      So, while it’s worth noting that Kurikoma is “only” a quasi-national park (国定公園) and not a national park (国立公園) and that the geothermal plant’s output is tiny–at 70,000kW, it would take a mere 126,000 of these plants to equal one Kashiwazaki-Kariwa–it appears, to mix metaphors, that the dam has been breached. If nothing else, it’s a salutory reminder that all energy sources, however green they may be touted, have environmental consequences. Indeed, a lot of the mechanics of geothermal–pump down water, harvest steam–look to this untrained eye like shale gas fracking.

  6. I love how this series is taking shape. Can’t wait for your conclusion on anchoring effects colliding with the myth of safety (surely this series is heading for such a marvelous accident, right?). Recently, I’ve read an article by Kentarou Takekuma (http://global.genron.co.jp/2012/05/01/thedaytheendlesseverdayended/) about the government’s response to the 3/11 disaster. You have to be a bit of a believer to swallow the “endless everyday” references, but his point about the disaster response compliments your extracts from TF&S:

    It is hard to imagine, but could the government and TEPCO have actually believed their own propaganda that made people believe “an accident could never occur at a nuclear plant”?
    [...]
    “A group of power company executives, METI officials, politicians, and other elites who graduated from the best universities creates a system that benefits themselves and their own greed, repeats that a dangerous situation is safe in order to sustain this system, and makes nearly zero preparations for a worst-case scenario (everything is safe, after all!), finds that a catastrophic accident does occur, the truth of which they cover up, blaming everything on the tsunami in order to avoid responsibility.”

    One question: why did you decide to write a series instead of one (super-lengthy) article? Granted we’d have to wait longer, but I miss those!

    • “I love how this series is taking shape.”
      You may be very surprised indeed at the conclusion…
      “Recently, I’ve read an article by Kentarou Takekuma (http://global.genron.co.jp/2012/05/01/thedaytheendlesseverdayended/) about the government’s response to the 3/11 disaster.”
      Essentially, that article’s narrative is more or less the orthodoxy in Japan these days, outside the nuclear village. I’m not sure I buy into it any more.
      “One question: why did you decide to write a series instead of one (super-lengthy) article? Granted we’d have to wait longer, but I miss those!”
      Thank you. Prosaic reasons, mostly: in the world of Twitter, and with friends telling me nothing longer than 400 words will capture their attention these days, I’m setting myself a c2,500-word limit; even though I really wanted this to be a triptych. Plus I’m going on holiday to Hokkaido for a couple of weeks at the end of the month and wanted to post something before then.

  7. As far as I know Stephen Pinker has no children.

    It seems the point of view on nuclear accident is radically different from those who have to think about the future generations which will come forth from them, and those who simply don’t have to worry about it like the author of this blog.

    • Of all the many retarded comments that I have had the pleasure of receiving since the inception of Spike Japan, yours is unequivocally the most retarded–congratulations!

  8. Dear Pachiguy, great post, great discussion. The only omission that stood out to me, was that you failed to mention the fact that the several hundred above ground nuclear weapon tests conducted during the 1950s and early 60s released as much or more radioactive material into the atmosphere as any nuclear power plant accident — this alone serves to disprove Ms. Robinson’s ignorant assertion that only three such incidents took place. I recall reading somewhere that Glenn Seaborg called the 1946 Baker shot of Operation Crossroads, “the world’s first nuclear disaster.” Even in this extreme case, with large numbers of US navy personnel exposed to high levels of radiation, long term health consequences were surprisingly hard to discover after 50 years.

    I would definitely read a Japan Energy blog, especially containing translations and analyses of source documents.

  9. Great reading as always. I’d just add a few points – Kyshtym was a nuclear reprocessing plant, mainly manufacturing plutonium for weaponry use, therefore it doesn’t really fit into any scale using MW of power as a comparison. It is closer in nature (if not to scale) with the Windscale disaster, one which in many peoples opinion was much worse than has ever been officially admitted. I think any reasonable assessment of nuclear disaster must make a distinction between military uses and civilian uses, Kyshtym would more properly be on the ‘Hiroshima’ side of the ledger than Fukushima.

    As for Pinkers book, it has indeed been disputed (if not refuted), most notably by John Gray:
    http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/john-gray-steven-pinker-violence-review/
    and it also attracted a lot of negative comment from the usually very interesting Crooked Timber blog.
    http://crookedtimber.org/2011/10/16/violence-down-claims-pinker-the-thinker/
    Like the writer of that CT posting, I haven’t read the book, but I’ve read plenty of other books by Pinker and I think he should have ‘confirmation bias’ as his middle name.

    • “Kyshtym was a nuclear reprocessing plant, mainly manufacturing plutonium for weaponry use, therefore it doesn’t really fit into any scale using MW of power as a comparison.”
      Fair point. I did say the MW comparison was crude. Indeed, I’m thinking of taking it down and editing the post, because it’s misleading for other reasons, which you’re welcome to spot…
      The “Windscale disaster” I know nothing about, but my reaction would be to say “which one?” According to Smythe, here:
      http://www.physicstoday.org/daily_edition/points_of_view/an_objective_nuclear_accident_magnitude_scale_for_quantification_of_severe_and_catastrophic_events
      20 of the 33 classifiable (by his criteria) INES Level 3-7 nuclear events in the nuclear age happened at Windscale/Sellafield, which is very disturbing (especially to a Brit). Clearly by any standard there was something very wrong at Wind/field for decades.
      (Smythe also rates Kyshtym as less serious than TMI, but while I’m really not one to judge, the East Urals Radioactive Trace looks a tad more serious than TMI to an innocent eye.)
      Ah, John Gray, one of the most derided pseudo-intellectuals of my good friend Torquatus and (to a lesser extent) myself. As one of the commentators at Prospect plaintively asks, well, has violence declined or hasn’t it? Can we get a little, you know, empirical around here? Here’s Torquatus on John Gray:
      http://alphatuosity.blogspot.jp/2011/09/cretin-of-week-john-gray.html
      Pinker’s is indeed a very Whiggish view of History, as the critics allege, but if I were to invite you, say, to join me in a time capsule back to 15th century Britain, and live with me there for a year and compare notes on 21st century violence, what do you think we’d find? I had grave doubts about the Pinker thesis when first introduced to it, but having read most of the tome now I’m not so sure—which is why I called it “hard to refute”. Naturally, the possibility remains wide open for a massive resurgence in violence in this century and (if we survive the current one) the next, which is something Pinker doesn’t address (but that wasn’t his remit, after all), which is why I began the second in this series of posts with a post-apocalyptic vignette that everyone has delightfully ignored. But are we living in a time of unprecedented global tranquility, high on the hog of cheap carbon? Hard to deny, surely.

      • I was thinking of the 1957 Windscale Fire. I mentioned that accident as this accident exemplifies the difficulties in assessing nuclear accidents – there has always been a strong suspicion in Ireland, based on clusters of birth defects and cancers in eastern coastal communities that elements of the accident were much worse than ever admitted. Its proven impossible however to make proven links between the accident and these otherwise unlikely clusters.

        As for John Gray, he is a terrible windbag at time and runs off into many flights of fancy, however I do think the attacks on him by parts of the English intellectual establishment are because he has hit on an essential truth about a strand of Anglo-American rationalism, which is that it is firmly rooted in a very specific protestant theology. The more Dawkins et al. lecture us otherwise the more they sound to the rest of the former colonies (including us ex colonial atheists) exactly like the sort of prim missionary England used to send out to show the natives the error of their ways. He is also correct to say that the New Atheists completely misunderstand the religious experience for the average religious person – as anyone who has stood sniggering with the lads at the back of an Irish Mass on a Sunday morning will know.

        I didn’t bother with reading Pinkers book because it seemed to me to fall into one of the more obvious epistemological traps lurking around the corner for scientifically minded scholars attempting to write grand narratives about history – assuming the commensurability of his chosen values. While it seems instinctively correct to say that the last 50 years or so have been a lot safer than proceeding centuries, to measure it as he does assumes that you can use the same metric to compare different forms of violence. To take one well known example, in the half century or so after 1950 China and India had relatively similar mortality rates, but utterly different forms of violence. In China, vast numbers died in famines and occasional massacres, while in India they did not (there were a few famines and massacres, but on a minuscule scale by comparison with China). India tolerated a low level ‘violence’ of high child mortality and terrible nutrition and healthcare, while the Chinese managed to do a pretty good job of keeping the average citizen healthy and safe, but culled them in occasional acts of carelessness and viciousness. I don’t really think you can compare either period meaningfully by looking at a highly restricted and somewhat arbitrary set of units of measurement.

      • “I didn’t bother with reading Pinker’s book”
        It’s not for the faint of heart, to be sure, although I find him an engaging guide. Even if you don’t buy either the decline in violence or the reasons adduced for it (and Pinker is honest enough to confess mystification at times), the book is a rambunctious tour of world (OK, mainly European and North American) history, a salutary reminder of—at the very least—the close contact with death, both violent and non-violent, that we in developed societies once had and now have absolutely lost, and above all, it’s just fun (for me at least) to spend time in Pinker’s company, picking up little nuggets along the way—who knew, for instance, that the streets of English towns in the late Middle Ages that housed the brothels were often known as Gropecunt Lane?
        “Because it seemed to me to fall into one of the more obvious epistemological traps lurking around the corner for scientifically minded scholars attempting to write grand narratives about history – assuming the commensurability of his chosen values.”
        I don’t really think he can be found guilty of that. He treats the plethora of violent acts, from say the war against witchcraft to the execution of debtors, largely on their own terms, without attempting to claim that, for instance, an hour in the pillories is commensurable with 200 naval lashes for indolence or attempting to formulate some unquantifiable “unit of violence”.
        “To take one well known example, in the half century or so after 1950 China and India had relatively similar mortality rates, but utterly different forms of violence.”
        I’m intensely curious to learn in what way this is “well-known”? Do you know who first formulated or popularized this comparison?
        “In China, vast numbers died in famines and occasional massacres, while in India they did not (there were a few famines and massacres, but on a minuscule scale by comparison with China).”
        So now we reach the definitional nub—what exactly is violence? Pinker, unfortunately, doesn’t set out his stall with any definition of violence at all, which is a shame. But I sense we all have a reasonably good working definition of what constitutes violence almost hard-wired into us—it starts when the fist meets the chin. While, say, a good spanking for a child might have been seen as the acceptable face of violence until very recently, I’m reasonably sure that its perpetrator (at least in the last couple of centuries perhaps) would have acknowledged it as a violent act. So I don’t accept that imprisonment for debt is a violent act, although it is undoubtedly coercive; nor would I accept that any form of imprisonment in a modern penitentiary is violent, although the implied threat of state violence may be integral to its functioning—but then so is tax collection. Slavery? Probably (Pinker certainly thinks so), but only because extreme levels of violence were indispensible to its success. Preventable famines? Possibly, but to me a tough call, because negligence or ineptitude does not require Pol Pot levels of callousness.
        “India tolerated a low level ‘violence’ of high child mortality and terrible nutrition and healthcare, while the Chinese managed to do a pretty good job of keeping the average citizen healthy and safe, but culled them in occasional acts of carelessness and viciousness.”
        High child mortality rates, terrible nutrition, and terrible healthcare are emphatically not violence, and I don’t think you believe they are either, to judge from the quotation marks you put around “violence”. Not all Bad Things are violent; to suggest that they are strips violence of all meaning. I also don’t know what it means to say that India “tolerated” these Bad Things—India has near-intractable problems of caste, religion, and race that China manifestly doesn’t. Besides, Pinker isn’t attempting any cross-country comparison—the question is, did violence decline in China and India in the era of the “long peace” since WWII? For China, the evidence overwhelmingly and obviously says yes. For India, we’d have to do more digging on homicide rates, etc., but frankly I’d be surprised if the answer was no.
        “I don’t really think you can compare either period meaningfully by looking at a highly restricted and somewhat arbitrary set of units of measurement.”
        You seemed to give it a go! But in what way are, say, records of actual bodily harm, gross bodily harm, manslaughter, or murder, in the UK justice system either “restricted” or “arbitrary”?
        But I wouldn’t recommend reading Pinker, if you want to keep your blood pressure down–he blames the Scots and the Irish for the persistently higher rates of homicide in the US South vs the North, three hundred years on (full disclosure: I’m half-Celt).

  10. “He is also correct to say that the New Atheists completely misunderstand the religious experience for the average religious person – as anyone who has stood sniggering with the lads at the back of an Irish Mass on a Sunday morning will know.”

    Apologies to Spike for intruding into this discussion – promise I won’t do it again – but I’m intensely curious to know what it does in fact feel like to be sniggering with the lads at the back of an Irish Mass on a Sunday. John Gray has misunderstood evolutionary biology so thoroughly that it would be difficult to quote a coherent sentence he’s written on the subject but perhaps he has something interesting to say about belief…?

    By the way, I think you’re wrong when you argue that different forms of violence are incommensurable. If you’re short sighted, you can visit an optician and walk out with a perfect prescription, which the optician arrives at by putting a series of lenses in front of your eyes and asking, repeatedly, ‘which is clearer – this one or this one?’ Analogously, most people would have no difficulty answering the question ‘which would feel worse, the death of your daughter or the death of your mother?’ Harder, but not unanswerable, is the question ‘which would be worse, instituting a policy that results in the starvation of 1000 citizens or prosecuting a war that results in the death of 1000 soldiers. Pinker isn’t an idiot and he certainly hasn’t fallen into any ‘obvious’ traps, epistemological or otherwise. It might very well turn out, as Spike has suggested, that he’s (mis)presented his findings in a way that allows him to reconcile his belief in progress with the hard facts of life but, if so, surely we should be finding flaws in his arguments, not in his conclusions?

  11. As always, both fascinating and educational.

  12. “And the death toll in interstate violence in the 66—and counting—years of peace between 1946 and the present? Zero.” A small quibble, but this number is probably not zero. An unknown number, 15 perhaps, of North Korean agents died when their boat sank during a battle with the Japanese Coast Guard in December, 2001.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s