We respond to risk based on our perception of it. Geological nuclear risk is mis-perceived and could be costly for investors. Thinking about risk using a technique called actionable systems thinking can help.
Systems thinking involves looking at risks or value creating processes as whole systems. This technique simplifies and clarifies. Many risk managers get carried away with complex tools and piles of data. These tools and data are used to as the basis for complicated models with costly and sometimes tragic consequences.
Events in Japan raise concerns about US nuclear risk. The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) released the risks associated with, “an earthquake that would cause damage to a reactor’s core releasing radiation”. The information as released mis-represents the risks.
The flawed risk unit known as the year
Risk is often expressed as the likelihood of an event occurring within a period of time such as a year. The time period is arbitrary. Like the useless financial Value at Risk metrics used by banks, co-variances and other non-sense these misrepresentations lead to bad choices.
Natural event risk is usually represented as an event happening every X number of years. This presentation of data is misleading. A more useful presentation is to use the unit of the system lifecycle.
Buying a house on a flood plain vulnerable to a once in a hundred year flood (1:100 years) may feel fairly safe. If you plan on owning the house for 33 years (its functional system life period), you have a 33% chance of disaster. People think differently when risk is expressed in system lifecycles.
The Indian Point nuclear facility near New York city is reported to have a one in 10,000 year risk of geological activity that could breach the core leading to radioactive material escape. This sounds safe until one considers the plant as a system. Systems have functional lives. Many nuclear reactors are re-licensed for 10 or more year increments. A 50 year functional life isn’t extraordinary.
Systems thinking risk applied to the Indian Point reactor puts failure odds at 1:200
When viewed as a 50 year system the Indian Point nuclear facility has a 1:200 chance of earthquake risk breaching the core and spilling radiation during its life. 50×1:10,000= 1:200 If during the design and permitting phase someone presented such a low probability high impact risk with that figure it would most likely be un-acceptable.
On the other side of the coin using the 1:10,000 year figure means on any given day the odds are 1:3,652,000 which many may say is acceptable. In the actionable systems risk framework, the correct metric to use is the systems life indicating The nuclear system has a 1:200 chance of geologically induced failure.
Each of the 104 reactors in the US operates independently, but combined can be considered as the US nuclear system. Using NRC data aggregating the US nuclear geological system risk one gets annual odds of 1:480 for a failure in the system. If one assumes each reactor is licensed and operational for 50 years, the risk horizon for a geological event in the US nuclear system is 10.42% or roughly 1:10 over a 50 year lifetime. 50×1:480 =50:480
This seems high for just one dimension of risk, namely geological. I am a fan of nuclear as a “clean” energy but only when risk is designed and priced correctly. Most likely some reactors should be shut down or moved if geographic and other risk vectors were presented using a systems risk perspective.
Nuclear operator’s liabilities are capped under the Price act at $560 million but the potential national cost for such an incident could exceed $500 billion. (see article link below).
The nuclear and finance industries needs to measure risk using systems thinking and systems frameworks to better engineer in safety. The higher risk operators in the Spreadsheet attached to this article may face material cost impacts from shut-down or redesigns of reactors.
Even NASA gets it wrong
NASA got risk wrong with the space Shuttle. NASA estimated the space shuttle system to be over 99.9999% safe. Nobel prize wining physicist Richard Feynman brilliantly described his role on the Challenger Blue ribbon panel in his book “What do you care what other people think?”. Feynman calculated probability of shuttle failure as 1:96. NASA organizationally saw risk and reported it the way it wanted to, not the way it was. Bankers and Utility companies may have the same behavioral risk drives.
The utility companies listed below may have margins shrink or costs increase if risks are correctly interpreted using a systems thinking perspective. This could be short term expensive for a few, but better for society in the long run.
In my day job I help banks, family offices and hedge funds understand risk and opportunity. This task often starts by getting rid of all price based models like VaR, volatility, beta, BIS standards and Modern Portfolio Theory. Losing these frames of belief causes distress at first until the Systems Thinking approach is brought in. Letting go of familiar but wrong metrics to replace them unfamiliar metrics that may bear bad news is rarely easy or popular.
Systems thinking mostly ignores price
Price reflects two opposing opinions expressed at a single point in time. 99% of investors can’t beat a buy and hold index. It stands to reason 99% of the opinions creating price are probably wrong when considering the correct measurement of value and risk.
participants symbol list: GE (General Electric), HIT (Hitachi), EXC (Excelon), AEE (Ameren), CEP (Constellation energy), DUK (Duke energy), D (Dominion Energy), private (Energy Northwest), FE (First Energy), FPL (Florida Light and Power), private (Nebraska Public Power District), NU (Northeast Utilities), NMC (Nuclear Management Company), NA (Omaha Public Power District), PCG (Pacific Gas and Electric), PGN (Progress Energy), SO (Southern Company), TVE (Tennessee Valley Authority), TXU (TXU energy), XCL (Xcel Energy)