Excellent, thought provoking post. It's clear that safety is a critical issue for all of us but how are our expectations set? Many times, there are additional factors that also come into play. Not alot of easy answers.
At 30,000 deaths per year, we're at about the same raw number of auto deaths in the late 1960s. With a larger population, that shows progress. Even so, if the airline industry experienced one tenth of the number in a year, all planes would be grounded until a solution was found. I'd love to see some pressure on the auto industry to create safer cars.
Every aspect of power generation has numerous failure mechanisms and each of those has a statistical number of deaths associated with it. The total number of predicted deaths per million from a 9.0 vs an 8.2 earthquake involves more calculations than there are engineers to make them. A trash-to-energy plant I'm familiar with requsted a permit to build and was denied because the predicted number of deaths per million of one of the stack gasses (out of 30 or 40 analyzed)was 4 per million (calculation showed one death wtih a margin of error of +/- 3). The applicant hired a world respected engineering firm to re-evaluate the formula and was able to reduce the margin of error from 3 to 2 (for several hundred thousand dollars) which reduced the prediction to 3 per million which was considered acceptable. It is difficult to separate a statistical model from the individual human lives those models represent.
Chuck, this is an interesting and important question. We do not design things to be failsafe. As you point out, that would cost too much. On the other hand, our whole attitude to risk and human safety is completely bizaire on a societal level. We get all upset by things like a school shooting, while we drive our cars in a very dangerous fashion. Go figure.
Automobiles, on the other hand, are MUCH safer today. The number you quote is far less than it was when the population was much lower than it is. There are a number of factors at work here, but the most important is the design of the vehicle.
Finally, I am reminded of the old Tank McNamara cartoon. When fans were asked how long they would watch cars go round and round a track (we're talking NASCAR), they answered a few minutes. When told that there was a possibility someone would die they answered as long as it takes.
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