Misleading and Irresponsible Statements

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Many statements on technological matters are subtly misleading or irresponsible, and it may be useful to give a few examples. Language is a delicate instrument, and it is very easy to make a statement that conveys a meaning different from what it actually says. The examples given below are taken from statements made by Church and other bodies on nuclear power, but similar ones may be found in other contexts. They include a whole range of statements from those that are just false but plausible to true statements presented in a way that conveys a false impression. Much depends on the context of a statement so, for instance, a cautionary remark in the midst of a balanced discussion is entirely acceptable, but taken out of context may be quite misleading. The falsity of many statements often appears only when numerical data are given, and the difficulty is that many people are unable to understand statistical statements.

(a) 'Our energy problems can be solved by more research on the renewable sources such as windmills'. This is wishful thinking. Many studies have shown that windmills are more expensive and dangerous than other sources, and they are also unreliable and environmentally offensive. Their efficiency can be somewhat improved by research, but not their unreliability. No amount of research can alter this.

(b) 'There should be a moratorium on nuclear power until it is made perfectly safe.' No source of power is perfectly safe, so all we can do is to make each source as safe as reasonably possible, and then choose the safest. Studies have shown that nuclear power is among the safest ways to produce energy. To do nothing is itself a decision whose hazards can be estimated. Thus the anti-nuclear campaign has already killed several hundred people by delaying the building of nuclear power stations which would reduce the number of more dangerous coal power stations.

(c) 'Nuclear reactors are emitting poisonous radiation that is shortening all our lives.' This is very probably true. A recent estimate, making the worst assumptions, is that statistically they shorten our lives by an average of about one second. For comparison, smoking one packet of cigarettes a day shortens life by about 3000 days.

(d) 'The purpose of this study is to list the arguments both for and against, and to leave it to the reader to reach a conclusion for future action.' This is considered to be a wise and judicious stance, but it is simply an abnegation of responsibility. If the committee of experts making the statement is unable to reach a decision, is it likely that non-experts will be able to do so?

(e) 'The most democratic way to reach a decision is by taking a vote.' This was once done after some lectures by experts. Once again, can we expect the views of non-experts to be better than those of experts?

(f) 'We can obtain all the uranium we need from seawater.' There is certainly a huge amount of uranium in the sea, but it is necessary to know how much it costs to extract and whether there are any environmental effects. The present indications are that it is too costly and produces large amounts of waste.

(g) 'A nuclear reactor contains about a thousand times the radioactivity released by the Hiroshima bomb.' This could well be true, but the essential point is not the amount of poisonous material but where it is, how it is contained, and is it likely to reach humans. The radioactivity released by the Hiroshima bomb went into the atmosphere, while that in a reactor is kept safely inside.

(h) 'Nuclear reactors are liable to explode like a bomb'. This is false. If the numbers of reactions increases the reactor expands and the reaction rate falls again. If however the reactor is badly designed, and is operated as irresponsibly as that at Chernobyl, when the safety devices were switched off, then the reaction rate can rise very rapidly, setting it on fire and releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere. To oppose nuclear power because this happened once is like forbidding the construction of ocean liners because of the Titanic disaster.

(i) 'Fusion reactors will be clean.' Certainly they will not produce any fission fragments, but the danger comes from radioactive materials, and these are produced in substantial quantities in fusion reactors.

(j) 'Nuclear power should only be developed with great caution.' This obviously true statement insinuates that nuclear power is especially dangerous. No one in their senses would suggest that anything should be operated carelessly.

(k) 'The public must be told about nuclear power'. Of course the public must be told, but this statement insinuates that it is being kept in the dark. The truth is that the public has been told a thousand times but does not understand because any accurate and responsible statements are drowned by propaganda and errors. It is a naive and dangerous error to suppose that all that is necessary is to tell people the truth, and all will be well.

(l) 'The carbon dioxide emissions from wind turbines are less than those from nuclear power stations'. This may or may not be true, but it is irrelevant to the choice between them. The results from several studies are given in Table 6.2, and it is apparent that they differ considerably. However, the important point is that they are about a hundred times less than the emissions from fossil fuel power stations, and so the first objective should be to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and then decide between nuclear and the other possibilities using the other criteria already discussed. It may also be mentioned that coal power stations emit more radioactivity than nuclear power stations, but in both cases the amounts are minuscule and so this is not a valid argument in favour of nuclear. As in so many other cases, it is necessary to look at the relevant numbers in order to reach a correct conclusion.

It is depressing that so many of those who take part in what is euphemistically called the nuclear debate repeat statements such as the above without any attempt to find out whether they are true or not. As I have frequently experienced, they are impervious to reasoned argument and refuse even to listen. They are so sure that nuclear is bad that they will not consider any arguments or take part in a real discussion. They propagate their views so assiduously that many people follow them and thus they exert a strong influence on Government policy.

There is nothing new in this, as Jenner (Miller 1983) discovered when he was faced with the cost in lives and suffering resulting from the activities of the anti-vaccinationists: 'One would think the statement of Facts, as they now stand before the Public from every Quarter of the Globe would blow away such stuff as these abominable people produce, like Chaff, but it is not so, or the Bills of Mortality would not exhibit weekly such horrid scenes of devastation from the Smallpox'. It would be understandable if such a man were to say: 'I have given you the means to eradicate smallpox; take it or leave it. If you prefer to remain in ignorance, to see your children die in torments, then let it be on your head and not on mine'. If he goes on fighting the ignorant mobs it is because he has in mind the reflection finely put by Donald MacKay (1979): 'The accusation of which we would have a right to be afraid on the Day of Judgement is this: "You knew what could be done in this way or that, and you did nothing"'. But if scientists have the duty to speak, does not the public have the duty to listen?

There are three basic errors underlying most of the statements by the Churches, namely innumeracy, unbalance and the failure to recognise objective truth. So many vital issues can only be settled by numerical estimates of cost, or safety, for example. Relying on rhetoric, emotion and even common sense is a recipe for disaster. Secondly, a statement must be balanced if it is to have any value. Thus if you are talking about the safety of power generation it is gravely misleading to consider only one source, pile up the arguments against it, and then jump to a conclusion. To reach a sound conclusion it is necessary to list all sources and compare them as objectively as possible. Thirdly, moral questions are not matters of opinion that can be settled by votes or rhetoric; they concern objective truth. It may not be easy to determine, it may be necessary to recognise the possibility of imprecision or error, but nevertheless it is always the final objective.

The public discussion of nuclear power began when the nuclear physicists who had worked on the atomic bomb during the war considered it their responsibility to do all in their power to inform the public of the dangers of nuclear weapons and the potentialities of nuclear power. Initially the response was very favourable and many countries started to build nuclear power stations, which proved on the whole very successful. It soon became clear that they were capable of providing the bulk of the power that the world so desperately needs. At this point strong political forces, for the reasons already mentioned, launched a strong and well-organised campaign against nuclear power. This was greatly strengthened by the accident at Three Mile Island and the disaster of Chernobyl. Several countries then resolved to stop building nuclear reactors and to phase out nuclear power as soon as possible. Worldwide the construction of nuclear power stations virtually ceased. In the same period people became increasingly concerned about the threats to the environment due mainly to the pollution from coal, oil and gas stations and other industrial processes. Acid rain and the possibility of climate change intensified these concerns. At first these were not taken very seriously, but now there is definite evidence from the melting of the Arctic to the increasing violence of tropical tornadoes that we are affecting the world climate. Governments are still reluctant to face this challenge and take effective action. The effects of the anti-nuclear campaigns are still strong, and Governments do not wish to court unpopularity by sanctioning the resumption of a nuclear power programme. Instead, they try to convince people that they can solve the world energy problems by relying on the so-called renewable energy sources, principally wind and solar, which are manifestly incapable of providing the power we need at an acceptable price. Unless realistic decisions are taken soon the situation will continue to deteriorate until more and more power cuts and natural disasters finally force Governments to act. The remedial actions inevitably take years to come into operation, and by then it may be too late.

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