Fukushima has people questioning the risk of nuclear power; you've used cars versus planes as an example of how we may not be very good at assessing risk.
Look at how many people die in the United States [each year]. How did they die? One in six dies of heart disease. A car accident, about 1 in 100. In a plane accident, about 1 in 5,000. From a terrorist attack, about 1 in something like 150,000. And yet what do we focus on? Terrorism and planes. When a plane goes down with 200 people on it, it's [on] front pages everywhere.
Now, what are the chances that a nuclear reactor is going to blow up and kill thousands of people? There are about 400 operating in the world, 104 here. What are the accidents that actually killed people? Chernobyl: 53 people died, but many more probably will get cancer. At Three Mile Island, none [died]. Now we have Fukushima -- fewer people were killed right away; in terms of cancer, [it's] unlikely to be as bad [as Chernobyl]. But the data are incomplete. People understandably are concerned about nuclear power because the consequences can be very, very high, but they tend to think it's more likely than it really is.
What are some of the lessons we've learned from Fukushima?
That "extremely unlikely" is not the same as "impossible." They designed for earthquakes [and] tsunami, but not this high a tsunami. We learned you don't have to design to make sure the reactor would still operate; let's design so maybe the reactor will never be able to operate again but you don't have a radioactive disaster on your hands.
The U.S. government recommended that American citizens within 50 miles of Fukushima get out. If, God forbid, something happened at San Onofre, good luck: Ever try to get out of Los Angeles on a Friday night?
If you exercise an evacuation plan, people [think], if they're making us do this, it must really be that they're expecting an accident. But if you don't --. Think of fire drills: Most people's reaction is, is there some way I can stay at my desk?
We learned that we have to put most of our effort into preventing the accident; and we have to think more seriously about responses to an accident.
More than 40 years ago, you worked on a Ford Foundation report called "Nuclear Power Issues and Choices." What did you recommend then?
Think carefully what we do with the nuclear fuel cycle and how it could be used for weapons. It was pretty much pro-nuclear power. It pointed out the risks tend to be low probability/high consequence, whereas coal kills people every day. Think of nuclear power certainly not as risk-free, but it's to be compared not to the perfect but to the real.
Yet people demand safety guarantees for nuclear energy that they don't from any other energy source.
Where it becomes the most absurd is in radioactive waste management; people were insisting that none of the radioactive material stored underground would get into the water or air for a million years. Now, a million years is a shorter period than we've been walking upright, but not by a lot. The idea of guaranteeing anything for a million years is absurd on its face, right? You can't do it. Let's have a little humility.
But the thing is silly both ways. It's silly to ask for it, but equally bad are people who say we can meet that criterion. No one really says we can meet it, but they're very careful. That's why we've had this big fuss with [storing waste at] Yucca Mountain. The people of Nevada were very much opposed from the beginning. President Obama and [Energy] Secretary [Stephen] Chu concluded we need an alternative strategy.
The total accumulated U.S. inventory of commercial spent nuclear fuel is about 72,000 tons, virtually all of which is stored at the plant sites. One of the [commission's] draft recommendations is to get consolidated storage for the spent fuel. We have experience transferring military [nuclear] waste; it has an extraordinarily good safety record, as, by the way, does the American nuclear power plant industry. If you don't count people who fell off ladders in nuclear power plants, basically no one has died in a nuclear reactor accident, ever, in this country.
I don't mean to be the proponent of nuclear power. I'm just trying to point out how we do not compare it with alternative [energy source risks]. I believe it would be valuable for nuclear power to be part of our mix.
You grew up in the Bronx and your dad drove a cab. How did you get where you are?
My ambition was to have a job where you wore a white shirt and a tie and you enjoyed what you were doing. Where I grew up, that was a pretty big thing. Oh, and it was important to make at least $100 a week. I studied engineering, which was instant middle class. I studied mechanical engineering, went into industry and hit my hundred-dollar mark. I got my PhD in nuclear engineering. After that, I [worked] on the Nonproliferation Treaty. This was 1970, and I've worked on [nuclear issues] since then.
Would I see you in the photo at the anti-ballistic missile treaty signing in 1972 in Moscow?
No, but I've got lots of thank you letters! It was the first time I'd been exposed to that, where you felt that if you did something wrong, the world could blow up. It clearly was not really true, but there was a sense of the awesome.
Back then nuclear weapons were a binary problem, the U.S. versus the Soviets, with a binary solution. Not now.
At that time there was a remote chance of nuclear war because it required that one of us would do something absolutely loony, knowing it would be suicidal. Today, [with] additional countries or terrorists getting nuclear weapons, the chances of one being used are, I believe, higher, but the consequences are much lower. One nuclear weapon is terrible; it's not as terrible as 10,000. We peaked out between us at about 50,000 [during the Cold War].
Do people conflate domestic and weaponized nuclear power?
Graham Allison and I wrote a paper in the early '80s called "The Utility Director's Dilemma." I remember saying, "This is the most depressing thing I've ever written." You start with the mushroom cloud. You have radiation -- invisible, insidious, eternal. There's cancer. Genetic effects. You take these things in combination, people think, I don't have to know the probability, I don't want this in my neighborhood! Can nuclear reactors blow up like nuclear weapons? No, but there's still some of that in people's minds. They do conflate them.
You once said that a can of worms can be used for catching fish--
Did I say that? That's pretty good!
Your other recent work was on the National Research Council's report on climate change; is it the kind of can of worms you meant?
In climate change, remember you're trying to look 50 years ahead. We have these climate models [but] there's uncertainty. How many people are going to be on Earth? What kind of energy are they going to use? How much greenhouse gas will they put into the atmosphere? What technological breakthroughs might reduce it? This is a risk-management problem. [Some] say, well, we should invest very heavily in research and development for technological breakthroughs rather than tax carbon and spend money now. Others say, that's really risky if you don't come up with a solution. We reaffirmed that climate change is likely primarily due to human activity, that the risks are cause for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and prepare to adapt to it. We believe it is more dangerous to do nothing than to do some things now, but you should revisit [it] all the time.
What do you make of what's happening to the University of California?
We had this great public university, but you didn't have to insert the word "public." [It was] able to compete with the best of the privates. We're losing that. We may already have lost it, in large measure. Students now pay more in tuition fees than the state provides. The resource gap is too great.
It's not as if all the fine professors suddenly will leave for private universities, [but] when you're trying to recruit new people, they're going to have this in mind. Graduate students will consider going where they can get a better financial package.
What can you do about this? You could have more state funding; a friend of mine said that's called faith-based funding. You could have less cuts. You could have a greater degree of what's called privatization. You might [accept] more out-of-state students -- there's a $22,000 premium for out-of-state students. You could have higher fees and higher aid. No one of these things would do it. It isn't as if there's nothing you could do, but they're all politically difficult.
[The education master plan] has served this state extraordinarily well -- the education level of the citizenry, the ability to maintain fine research universities, to have the kinds of jobs and economic growth California has had. If we want to maintain that excellence, it's going to cost more.
I'm not badmouthing the University of California, but all of the signs for the future are in the wrong direction if it's to continue to compete with the best of the privates. It will still be a leading public university, but that shouldn't be good enough for us.
You've sure waded into deep waters in your career.
I've chosen to work on problems that I think are really important, recognizing that I can't completely solve them. I started out doing mostly mathematics, where you could solve the problem. I miss that. You could say: "Here's the answer! It's 17!" Whereas the best I can hope for is [that] I can make it better. And that's what I've been doing for decades now.
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.