Is Japan’s Nuclear Crisis a Black Swan?

by Franke James

Black Swan event drawing from Ending the Climate War by Franke James

The current nuclear crisis in Japan has me thinking about Black Swan events. Those so-called events that are world-changing and unpredictable. Author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb cites the September 11 attacks as an example of a Black Swan Event — which I find curious as there were many advance clues (although ignored). Here is how Taleb defines Black Swans in a New York Times article:

“What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.”

Predicting Japan’s nuclear crisis

So, does Japan’s nuclear crisis fit the definition of a Black Swan in your mind? Could it have been predicted? Was it in fact predicted? What do you think?

In August 2008, I created a story about a propane depot explosion that happened in Toronto. Japan’s crisis is exponentially larger, yet just like in Toronto there were advance clues. Recent news articles on Japan show a pattern of falsified safety records, warnings to Japan about building nuclear plants on active fault lines, as well as ones susceptible to Tsunamis.

Below is an excerpt from my story, 12,000 Sitting Ducks.

Black Swan event drawing from 12,000 Sitting Ducks by Franke James
It is not a Black Swan drawing from 12,000 Sitting Ducks by Franke James
What was the City thinking drawing from 12,000 Sitting Ducks by Franke James

Drawing of 12,000 Sitting Ducks by Franke James

Time Mag cover about Risk Drawing from 12,000 Sitting Ducks by Franke James

Joker drawing from 12,000 Sitting Ducks by Franke James

Franke James drawing of iphone

Franke James drawing of circle

Yes. What are the chances it would blow up on a politician’s watch?

The Black Swan Excuse
If we excuse the crisis in Japan as a Black Swan, we miss the opportunity to prepare ourselves for a nuclear crisis here at home. Just last week there was a leak of radioactive water at Pickering, which was covered by the CBC, but got little attention from the public.

Certainly, the US and Canada’s Nuclear industry would love for us to shrug Japan’s crisis off as a Black Swan, but it’s got their PR people worried:
The nuclear power industry must win PR war
Nuclear Industry Worried About PR

Lamentably, Ontario is rushing ahead with its $33 Billion dollar plans for Darlington’s Nuclear Power Plant. Engineers publicly claim Canadian nuclear is perfectly “safe”, but their accountants tell a different story. In an Ottawa Citizen article, Ontario Energy Minister Brad Duguid “attempted to quell fears” by saying “…our current reactors are safe. They’re built to withstand whatever Mother Nature in this part of the world would place upon them.” (See: Japan fallout: Canadians question safety of nuclear power)

Japan’s nuclear crisis has caused me to rethink my ambivalence to nuclear power. I don’t believe it’s worth the risk. We should be committing our resources to renewable energy, wind and solar. (And not supporting the nuclear industry with $405 million a year as the Harper Government has pledged).

Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace has written a thoughtful piece on why Nuclear Energy Isn’t Needed, and why the risk of nuclear power will never be diminished. Naidoo says,

“Nuclear technology will always be vulnerable to human error, natural disaster, design failure or terrorist attack.”

Knowing that inevitability, we need to use this:

foresight drawing by Franke James

Read more on Greenpeace about “Ending the nuclear age”

Link to 12,000 Sitting Ducks

“Is Japan’s Nuclear Crisis a Black Swan?” copyright 2011 Franke James.


12 Responses: 5 Comments and 7 Tweets


    @GreenpeaceCA: RT @frankejames: Is Japan’s Nuclear Crisis a Black Swan?

  • Vye Young says:

    Enjoyed your piece very much – satire to the extreme and a good chunk of reality mixed to remind us that we should not believe all we hear or see in print. All this baloney about “we do not have to worry about the nuclear fallout out of Japan” is just a huge bunch of crap. In our daily lives radon gas abounds – more in some locals than others – and for sure radioactive elements are all around us. As we evolve our bodies are able to process a little at a time – now add a handful from Japan and we may have just enough for an epidemic for years to come. Disease does not start overnight. I would rather be safe than sorry. So for the amount that natural Kelp costs, I am adding this to my diet. Top up and then taper down. This will not clog your thyroid like the pharmaceutical chemical grade “potassium iodide” I do not recommend it. However, I am wondering why the pharmaceuticals are removing this product off their shelves. Guess a good epidemic will not hurt the bottom line for years to come!
    One more thing – the water that laps at the shores of Japan will sooner or later lap at our shores and the wind – generated somewhere will eventually blow in our air space. Japan is not in a sealed envelope or in a box. We all share this world together – yes all of us. So the Black Swan is an excellent reference – good on you for writing!

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  • LaDonna Coy says:

    Well said, Bravo Franke!

    Nuclear makes no sense to me from a risk perspective and because we have no real, safe way to deal with the waste (although some are recycling to some degree) there is the added risk of nuclear waste to deal with.

    Your post has renewed my enthusiasm for pushing harder on my government to support and create incentives for harnessing renewable energy. I realize this is a problem since we’ve built our world for fossil fuels and grown our population to proportions that make many see nuclear energy as our only viable option for 6.5 billion people and growing. Additionally we have built our system for jobs in these areas and not made the investment for jobs in alternative fuels. My hubby keeps telling me that until we find a way to make money from renewable energy – we probably won’t see the big investments in it. sigh.

    I also think that in America we seem to think bigger is better when in fact perhaps in this case smaller is better. What I mean by that is what if each person had a menu of renewable energy options, find what fits for the conditions in their area and made a solid, renewable energy choice? In my way of thinking there’s room for all of us to play a role in renewable energy. We need more homes and businesses and buildings using renewable energy (a million points of light) more than we need gigantic, expensive, difficult-to-maintain infrastructures. Maybe some tax incentives for this kind of personal energy conversion would be helpful?

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