Here are some questions about nuclear power:
1. How is a nuclear reaction ‘controlled’?
2. How is a Generation III reactor different to a Generation II reactor?
3. Why do light water reactors use a different type of uranium to fast breeder reactors?
4. How does the safety record of the nuclear power industry compare with coal, oil or gas?
5. Should events at Fukushima make us more cautious about using nuclear energy?
If you can answer the first four questions with confidence you are in a small minority, if you have a view on the final question, you are not. We know that recent events in Japan in the wake of the tsunami tragedy have made the public more afraid of nuclear power, with a recent UK poll showing that 37 per cent of respondents are now more likely to oppose new nuclear build. At the same time Germany has announced that it will place a three month moratorium on a recent decision to extend the life of old nuclear plants.
Is increased fear of nuclear power rational in the wake of recent events in Japan? This week saw a discussion of just this point on the Today programme involving the former government Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King. Against Justin Webb’s insistence that it is ‘not irrational’ to fear nuclear power more now, King insists that it is at least ‘somewhat irrational’ to do so. Why does King think this? He points out that the nuclear industry has fewer deaths per kilowatt hour of energy produced that any other form of energy production. Coal mining is far more dangerous than working in a nuclear power plant. Furthermore we expose ourselves to higher levels of radiation in flying from London to New York than we would if we drank tap water in Tokyo, or even if we walked around Fukushima.
So, is it rational for the public to be more scared now of nuclear power, or is it irrational? Interestingly, the answer is ‘both’. People’s understanding of how nuclear power generation works, and of the risks involved in both generating power and dealing with nuclear waste, is on average low, and furthermore polls show that support for nuclear power is correlated with levels of knowledge about how it works.
In short the public are ignorant about nuclear power, but, as Joseph Schumpeter pointed out years ago with respect to foreign policy, they are rationally so. Understanding nuclear power generation and its environmental implications would take a good deal of intellectual effort, and for most of us it would bring precious little reward. That mental energy could be better employed thinking about our own jobs or family life, or even about what kind of toaster to buy. This would bring us more direct welfare than working out how a fast breeder reactor works.
This might explain low levels of public knowledge, but why, then, do people still feel able to express confident views about the dangers of nuclear power in the wake of Fukushima? Why don’t they just tick ‘don’t know’?
This is because, as Bryan Caplan suggests, people are not only rationally ignorant, but also ‘rationally irrational’. This sounds like a contradiction in terms, but what it means is that for most of us there is no cost to having a strong view about nuclear power, even if that view is hopelessly ill-informed. Unless you are running a nuclear power station, you can believe what you like about nuclear power, as strongly as you want to believe it, and it matters not a jot – although believing it may make you feel good.
This is Caplan’s insight: beliefs are like any other good, they are price sensitive, and we can have preferences over what to believe just as we can have preferences over what we like to eat or like to wear. As long as your beliefs are costless, you can believe whatever offers you the most utility, and believe it with as much passion as you choose.
Elsewhere I have applied this logic to beliefs about climate change, where we see that people often report a very strong view that ‘something must be done’ about climate change, but are much less likely to report being in favour of actually doing anything – at least anything that might involve a personal cost, such as driving or flying less frequently than they do now. This fits with the theory of rational irrationality, as once your views become attached to an obvious and up-front cost the economics of belief are changed.
So, not knowing the answers to questions 1-4 will never be a barrier to having a strong view about question five, and in answer to Justin Webb and Sir David King, if you do have such a view you are being perfectly rational.
And perfectly irrational.