Salience of Risk

An earth quake and a subsequent tsunami reaped havoc in Japan. As a consequence, many people in countries neither affected by a major Earth quake in the past nor likely to be affected by one in the near future, started to question the safety of nuclear energy. Radiation lasts for some thousand years and this prospect alone seems to intimidate people. They shy away from nuclear energy and rather want their power produced by something else. However, there is not a single way to produce “clean” energy or energy that is not dangerous. Each energy source has its own dangers as a report compiled by
the WHO shows

Energy Source Death Rate (deaths per TWh)
Coal – world average 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China 278
Coal – USA 15
Oil 36 (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas 4 (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass 12
Peat 12
Solar (rooftop) 0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind 0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro 0.10 (Europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro – world including Banqiao) 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

Death rates for nuclear energy are far below deaths rates reported for other energy sources. Nevertheless, it is nuclear energy the use of which is questioned. Why’s that? One answer can be found in work done by Paul Slovic and associates, that came up with the following hypothesis: “…risk events interact with psychological, social, and cultural processes in ways that can heighten or attenuate public perception of risk and related risk behaviour” (Kasperson et al., 1988, pp.178-179). Thus, the real risk of nuclear energy is superimposed by a social perception of risk and sometimes a social amplification of risk: “Social amplification of risk denotes the phenomenon by which information processes, institutional structures, social-group behaviour, and individual responses shape the social experience of risk” (Kasperson, 1988, p.;181). In short, the more you hear about the risk of nuclear energy, the more your peers talk about the risk of nuclear energy and the more this salience of the risk of nuclear energy appeals to your beliefs, the higher you erroneously think the risk of nuclear energy is. This mechanism accounts for the gross deviation between real risk and opinions about the real risk.

Don’t believe it? Well, think about Mount Vesuvius a picturesque mountain near Naples. Scores of tourists come close to Mount Vesuvius when they visit Pompeii and Herculaneum or even make the trip to the crater of Mount Vesuvius. Yet, the risk of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius is many times higher than the risk of a nuclear meltdown, but nobody seems to care, at least as long as the
volcano stays silent…


Kasperson, Roger E., Renn, Ortwinn, Slovic, Paul, Brown, Halina S., Emel, Jacques, Goble, Richard, Kasperson, Jeanne X. & Ratick, Samuel (1988). The Social Amplification of Risk: A Conceptual Framework. Risk Analysis 8(2): 177-187.

  1. #1 by Andreas Moser on March 27, 2011 - 11:30 am

    But with nuclear technology being the most complicated of these methods to produce energy, the likelihood for underestimation of the risks is highest:

    And we still don’t know what to do with the nuclear waste. This might cause many more deaths in the future, something that is very unlikely to be said about solar or wind energy.

  2. #2 by Johannes on April 2, 2011 - 11:25 pm

    The number of death related to the Chernobyl disaster range from 4,000 to over 800,000. Which number was taken for this calculation?

    And about coal, I guess it includes the mining accidents too. What about the health problems from uranium mining? Is this included?

    The main problem with the statistics for nuclear energy is, that for example the cause of cancer is not easy to track back to nuclear power.

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