Writing Big Year: Societal risks are tough to assess

A recent image of a Californian dam experiencing problems. Dams do fail and when they do, casualties can be high. The pro-nuclear folks say reactor risks – the actual deaths over half a century, even allowing for Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima – are dwarfed by dam risks, let alone coal risks. As an ex-actuary, I’m partial to numerical calculations, but all my reading of the voluminous writings in the “field of energy risks” hasn’t put me fully in sync with that judgement.

You see, I can’t help but feel that the ordinary person in the street is right to be scared of reactors. Often they’re frightened not because they’ve evaluated risks but simply by association with mushroom cloud images. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong. The antinuclear folks can exaggerate certain reactor risks, but the scariest risk, that of meltdown and mass radiation release, seems to me to be terrifying for all the right reasons. Maybe that risk is one of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “black swan” events, very rare but horrendous in outcome. Who knows what the next meltdown, assuming there will be one, will bring?

No wonder I love my work. How hard to make up one’s mind, yet how endlessly fascinating!


Writing Big Year: Immersion in a decade

At Archie & Kirk in Marrickville, the ideal spot, in a superb suburb of Sydney, to submerge the brain in the most important chapter of my book so far. The decade from the mid 50s was when the global battle between different nuclear power reactor designs roared. Every skirmish cowered under the more fraught peak of the Cold War. All the histories of this country or that country or some aspect . . .  well, they gloss the drama and reality with myth-making. Only one person can decipher the truth. Or so I tell myself this cooler morning.

I’m five days into seven of this work here, a bewildering period on many levels. My mind writhes at night and I sleep in every morning, technically breaching the Big Year rules. I struggle with jogging and cycling. Progress through my stacked notes is tardy, though it’s quickening. Several times I’ve longed to give up, just give in.

But the welcoming hospitality, just being away from home (where so much side work awaits), and a steady, dull routine . . . all these have worked a magic. I’m perceiving the rhythm of the past, absorbing the sins of our fathers, spying patterns. I smile.