By John Stewart
Director, Policy and Research
Canadian Nuclear Association
Imagine: It’s 300,000 years ago. You’re an ape-like human living in a small, semi-nomadic band. Your group migrates among a few favourite campsites. And for a few hundred generations, you’ve been learning to control fire.
Last night, your fire got away and scorched several hectares around camp. Your group lost half its stock of animal skins, and some members got burned.
Among the tribe, moods vary. Some say the whole fire idea was wrong. “Inherently unsafe technology,” they grunt. “Made the whole place useless for years.” “Better off the old-fashioned way, huddling in our animal skins in the dark,” some mutter. “Raw meat tasted better anyhow.” “Uneconomic – all that time spent looking for firewood and blowing on hot coals.”
You have different ideas. You build stone fire-rings (for containment). You keep water handy (for shutdown) and bank coals (for quick restart). You teach people how to handle and put out fire (safety training). You rotate fuel so it burns fully, and you build the fire against an upright rock so more of the heat and light reflect toward you (efficiency). You experiment with cooking (applications).
Ten thousand generations later, fire safety still isn’t perfect. But over 10,000 generations of our species have had warmth, light, and better and safer food. Six or eight of those generations have had abundant mechanical power. Three or four generations have had mass transport and electricity, with the huge leaps in life quality they bring. All from using and controlling fire.
Unfortunately, it took us most of those 10,000 generations to get really good at reducing the risks. A major urban fire happened on average every two years in the 1800s. New York and Toronto each had two devastating fires in the first half of that century. This just doesn’t happen today.
Things like fire departments, hydrants, alarms, extinguishers, and appliance and building codes have done wonders since 1800 to make fire safer to use, without reducing its benefits. Starting a couple of hundred years ago, we began institutionalizing and systematizing safety, and these are some of the results.
Fire marshals, insurance institutes, building inspectors, product regulators, hospitals, manufacturers and many other professionals collaborate to spot risks, reduce them, and make us safer. Each fire is an opportunity to learn better how to prevent fires, and is treated that way. As a result, fire frequency, damage, deaths and injury rates are driven ever downward – first in the most advanced regions, and elsewhere soon after.
Nuclear energy is the new fire. It can improve our lives as dramatically as fire did. With near-zero carbon emissions, and fewer impacts on air, land and forest. And more quickly. Just two generations after the first controlled reaction, we had applied nuclear technology worldwide in energy and medicine.
Meanwhile, measured against the old fire, nuclear’s safety is phenomenal. The few dozen direct fatalities from nuclear look like a pin-prick, whether you look at direct or indirect harm, compared to the damage that is still done by fire even after all our success in controlling it.
We learn quickly now. Good collaborative work by many professionals does that work systematically and relentlessly. While safety is not and will not be perfect – in fire, air travel, consumer products, nuclear or anywhere else – we are learning faster and getting better.