The chances of being run over by a bus: Viewpoint

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LAST WEEK I discovered I am worth between pounds 2m- pounds 3m. Well, that is the price the Fellows of the Royal Society put on my life.

My only quibble is that they did not bother to tell me. In keeping with its policy of lofty disdain for the real world or, as some might have it, bumbling incompetence in dealing with the press, the society has just published a substantial report, Risk: Analysis, Perception and Management, without letting anyone see it.

They also buried the information on how highly they value me in an appendix tagged on to the end of 200 closely printed pages of analysis couched in the most impenetrable prose to have crossed my desk in a long time. It is a strange way both to write and to 'publicise' a report, a substantial part of which is devoted to public perception of risk and the communication of risk analysis to the wider public.

However, it is reassuring to know that the Fellows value me more highly than does the Government. Life comes cheap to John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, for his department reckons I am worth only about pounds 500,000.

My multimillionaire status is, alas, not unique to me. The society estimates that in Britain pounds 2m- pounds 3m is the value to be put on 'a statistical life'. In other words, this is the sort of money we ought to be spending on upgrading safety equipment, and otherwise diminishing hazards, if by doing so we can expect to save one life. On this measure, it would appear that my entire family - all four of us - would have to be wiped out before the Department of Transport would move to improve road safety.

The report is an update of an earlier foray into the field, published in 1983. Crucially, the society has gone beyond the narrow focus of the technocrat in assessing numerical risks and has put its toe into the waters of how the public perceives risks.

In a sense, the arithmetic - are the tanks and equipment at an oil refinery liable to explode once in a million years or more often? - is trivial. What is more important is the morality of risk. There is always inequity: if an oil refinery is built at the bottom of my garden, then my family will bear the risk (whatever it is numerically), whereas the benefit of cheaper petrol is enjoyed by the oil company and British motorists generally, few of whom are likely to be affected by any accidents at the plant.

Sadly, the society is reluctant to take on such issues. While the report contains two chapters on public issues, they are impenetrable and the society, in an extraordinary step, has included a preface distancing itself from the chapters.

This lack of nerve is highlighted by another report on risks published a week before the society's effort. Commendably, the Health and Safety Executive's report on The Tolerability of Risk from Nuclear Power Stations faces head-on the problems of explaining risk assessment in straightforward language, the ethical issues of who has to bear risks, and at what level risks may be judged intolerable. This document, too, is a second try at the subject, updating a 1988 report following recommendations from Sir Frank Layfield, the inspector at the public inquiry into the Sizewell nuclear reactor.

The HSE makes clear that while the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate can make a reasonable assessment of the risks of major nuclear accidents in the UK, it is not up to regulatory bodies to decide if the risks are outweighed by the benefits - that, the report concludes, is for Parliament and the public.

The HSE does answer the question of exploding oil tanks. The chance that Canvey Island on the Thames would suffer an accident capable of causing 1,500 casualties at a stroke is about one in 5,000 a year. In comparison, the chance of an aircraft crash similar to the recent one in Amsterdam is five times greater. It would take 20-50 modern nuclear power stations to have 'a similar chance of causing death to some hundreds of people as the installations at Canvey Island', the HSE concludes.

But the HSE's technocrats have failed to understand the special problems presented by nuclear accidents. Radiation kills people statistically by causing cancer. If 100 people are lined up at random, it is a fair bet that about 24 of them will die of 'natural' cancers. If, in some macabre experiment, all 100 were irradiated at the level likely to cause one excess death, there would be 25 deaths resulting from cancer. But it is in principle impossible to point to any one of those 25 bodies and say 'this one died from radiation'.

Statistics exist about the number of people likely to die in road accidents each year but that differs qualitatively from the case of radiation. If someone falls under the wheels of a double- decker bus, no one is in any doubt about the cause. Radiation is unique in causing death randomly and unattributively. That there should be greater public concern about radiation is neither irrational nor unscientific.

Yet the HSE has diminished the impact of radiation risks by focusing on the delay between irradiation and the development of cancer and highlighting the 'length of life lost' as a result. This means the lives of pensioners are worth less than those of the young. Indeed, the HSE gives a precise figure: the value of a pensioner appears to be 0.45 times that of a younger person.

What sort of relationship did the men who put together the HSE's analysis have with their parents? My own live within sight of the Hunterston nuclear power station in what used to be Ayrshire and I do not like the idea that, if the men from the HSE take their calculations seriously, my parents would be afforded less than half the consideration given to other residents of their village.

In this supposedly democratic society, there are no formal mechanisms whereby we can give our views on whether such risks are acceptable or intolerable. The HSE has made a good fist of explaining the issues, but some of its ideas seem perverse and worrying and must be debated more widely.

'The Tolerability of Risk from Nuclear Power Stations', HMSO, pounds 12.

'Risk: Analysis, Perception and Management', The Royal Society, 6 Carlton House Terrace, London SW1Y, pounds 15.50.

Comments