In addition to examining an energy source's (or policy's) economic, environmental, and political viability, policy analysts and lawmakers must also consider associated risks. Risk assessment involves looking at the potential loss and the probability that such a loss will occur. It's important to know that nothing is without risks (think about the list of potential side effects you get when you pick up an antibiotic at the pharmacy). But risk assessment plays an important role in formulating the political and environmental feasibility of any particular energy source.
With traditional fossil fuels, we tend to think of human health risks and environmental risks. The fuel sources are plentiful, well-understood, and relatively inexpensive. When we look at the risks associated with alternative energy sources, those risks involve decreased reliability of supply, higher costs, and the loss of jobs associated with traditional fue
A little while back I came across a really good article on the Huffington Post website by Aron Cramer, President and CEO of an organization called BSR that focuses on corporate sustainability issues. The article discusses the earthquake and tsunami in Fukishima, Japan and how events like that shape how we think about energy policy. It is also an example of systems analysis. Please take a moment to think about this article and reflect on how our energy policies ripple throughout society.
To learn more about the risks associated with nuclear reactors, check out the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Fact Sheet.
Actual vs. Perceived Risk
There is an extensive body of literature regarding perceived risk and how that influences people's opinions on everything from energy sources to natural disasters. Understanding how information (or lack of information) shapes people's views on energy issues is key to identifying knowledge gaps and disseminating factual information to help them make educated choices. For better or worse, perceived risk - no matter how realistic or unrealistic it is - is equivalent in impact on individual perception of risk and thus should be considered in policy analysis.