Common wisdom is often unwise

[Written 3-20-03]

Which are you more afraid of, being killed by a nuclear power plant accident or being killed in a car accident?

Fact: In 2001, 40,000 Americans, 0.01% of the US population was killed in car accidents. Reference. About 40,000 per year have been killed in cars every year since at least 1957… That’s 1.8 million people IN AMERICA ALONE.

Fact: In the history of nuclear power, less than 1,000 people have been killed worldwide. Reference. Now go ahead and add to that the roughly 200,000 people killed by nuclear explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

Let’s do some wildly rough estimates….

Let’s assume that automotive deaths are similar per capita around the world. Let’s conservatively assume that 1 billion out of the 6 billion people in the world are subject to cars in a similarly life threatening way. The US has 270 million, or roughly 1/4 of the auto deaths.

1.8 million deaths * 4 = 7.2 million auto deaths worldwide since 1957.

Compare that to 200 thousand deaths due to nuclear power and explosives combined since it’s invention in 1945.

For the last 50 years, it’s been the case that you’re 30 times more likely to be killed by a car than any form of nuclear power, including bombs. If you exclude bombs, that figure changes just a little. You’d have been 7,200 times more likely to be killed by a car than a nuclear power accident.

Of course I’m skipping over a lot of details. But the point of this exercise is to point out the generalities, not the specifics. It’s likely that if you cared to do careful examination, many of the details fall away.

Here are some of the details I skimped on:

* Who is inside the study and who is outside… IE what about the other 5 billion people?
* 1 nuclear bomb can screw up all these numbers. My rant here is about public policy not international diplomacy.
* Many of the stats on nuclear power are probably artificially low. Adding on an order of magnitude or two to those numbers doesn’t make much statistical difference
* What about auto deaths before 1957? Hey, those are all the numbers I could come up with with a quick Google search.

Now which are you more afraid of?

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’ll tell you how this is related to my Megan’s Law rant. People only act on things that are dramatic and sitting right in front of them. Car crashes happen every day… boring. Nuclear accidents make headlines… excitement! Megan’s killer getting the chair… excitement! Smoking yourself to a 1 in 3 chance at lung cancer… boring. Terminal obesity… boring.

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