Pink Buses: The Nuclear Option
In an alternate universe, everybody rides the bus because cars are too dangerous for bystanders. Why? Well, actually buses are dangerous too, but the risks are quite a bit lower because fewer buses are needed to move the same number of people around.
I know this is not very clear, so let’s look at a couple of bus types that allude to the problem:
One is a normal-size bus powered by a very large engine made of a dark green metal.
The other bus is an extra-long bus with an accordion in the middle. It has a very small engine made of pink metal enclosed in a very large, very heavy box.
In this universe, all motor vehicles suffer from a horrible glitch. Every once in awhile, they release a deadly nerve agent that suddenly kills anyone in close proximity to the vehicle. (it’s not as bad as it sounds: children and young adults usually survive, at least for a decade or two.)
The extent to which each vehicle does this, however, varies tremendously.
The green-metal bus will reliably release a large number of small deadly gas clouds over its service life, often killing more than five people over a 30-year service life, but killing only one person at a time.
By contrast, over 99.5% of all pink-metal buses never, ever release a deadly gas cloud, but on the rare occasions when they do, they release a pretty big cloud that typically kills about six people at once. The worst case in history, by far, was a cheap Soviet-made pink bus whose engine was exposed to the open air like balls on a gay cruise; it once produced a cloud that killed a few dozen people all at once, and contaminated the environment of the entire neighborhood. No one has used this model for many years, however, and a design like that was never (and could not be) approved in any other country.
Much like an airplane accident, each time a pink bus releases a gas cloud, the news spreads around the world, and there is a large investigation that produces binding recommendations to prevent the same thing from happening again in new pink buses.
However, the design of the green buses is difficult to fix, so it was deemed acceptable for there to be up to five deaths from each one of those over the vehicle’s service life. On the whole, the green buses have killed hundreds of times more people, per mile traveled, than the pinks.
But the green buses are much more popular. Why? Well, there is a group of people who apparently hate the color pink, and have spent decades doing everything they could to eliminate those pink engines from circulation. They’re not happy just putting a coat of paint on the engines either, because they know that they are “really” pink on the inside. These people don’t actually like the green-metal buses either, but when it comes to writing petitions, voting, writing members of congress, lobbying and media outreach, 95% of their focus is on fighting the scourge of the pink buses.
These deaths are treated as a “fact of life” in the modern world, so the government doesn’t bother to keep statistics on which buses are killing how many people. The information we have on the buses, therefore, comes from estimates by a few scientific researchers, and those estimates tend to vary substantially between studies, but that variation is less than a factor of ten, while the actual death estimates very by a factor of 1000, so we can be confident that green, yellow and brown buses kill far more more people than pink, blue and orange buses.
I found it hard to understand the anti-pink opposition, especially after learning more about the pink buses, so I found a few anti-pinks on social media and asked them why they think pink buses are so bad. They explained their opposition as follows:
- Nerve gas constantly escapes from the engine even when it is switched off, so that if someone were to sleep each night inside the engine compartment, they could get nerve damage.
- There are some countries that build pink buses and also pink poison gas canisters. Some of the equipment used to build one can be useful in building the other.
- We don’t trust standard scientific estimates of deaths from pink buses. The anti-pink coalition (known as “Greenpeace”) says those estimates are at least ten times too small.
- Pink buses use a fuel that is not sustainable.
- Even thousands of years after the bus is decommissioned, you can still potentially get nerve damage if you drink water that the engine has been soaked in. And we can’t trust pink-bus manufacturers to build containment structures that will last thousands of years. Too much corporate greed!
- Expert terrorists could steal an engine, take it apart and rebuild it in a form that allows it to release a single giant poison gas cloud that could kill a thousand people at once, melting itself in the process!
- Pink BRT buses are too large for many service routes.
So of course, I point out that
- The amount of nerve gas is quite miniscule, and nobody would sleep in the engine compartment anyway.
- Poison gas canisters can be built without building pink buses. and vice versa;maybe the dual-use manufacturing equipment is the main risk factor rather than the buses themselves.
- Even your 10x higher death estimate is small compared to the green/yellow/brown numbers.
- Green buses use a fuel that is even less sustainable, and it is possible to greatly improve the sustainability of the pink ones but not the green ones
- Other models of bus also contain substances that can poison a water supply, but in much larger quantities, and no one is asking for eternal containment structures for these other substances
- There are several safeguards in place against the terrorist scenario, and moreover we can design buses specifically to make this scenario impractical or impossible. There may even be easier ways to kill a thousand people, too.
- There are some companies working on “small modular pink buses”.
Of course, I also show them this:
This is probably the point at which I would be blocked on Twitter or banned from the Subreddit.
But if I am allowed to continue talking, I would say all of this is a red herring, because the really big question is WHAT ABOUT THE GREEN BUSES? Why did they work so hard to stop the pink and not the green?
And they respond “oh come on, that’s a strawman, I never liked the green buses! I’m opposed to both! I’m just saying we should use blue and orange buses instead of pink and green.”
And I say, “But the blue and orange buses were extremely expensive during the first 50 years when you were opposing the pink ones! So after you guys worked so hard to stop the pink buses, we ended up with a huge fleet of green, yellow and purple ones instead! Won’t you take any responsibility for that?”
And they say “No, how can you possibly blame us? We demanded that the government subsidize blue and orange buses instead…. it’s not our fault if our dream of a blue-and-orange world is taking longer than expected to come to fruition due to corporate greed! The conservatives prevented any action from being taken! Blame them!”
“Yes, well, the reason they needed subsidies was because each blue or orange bus used to cost four times as much as a normal bus. And the reason the conservatives opposed the subsidies was because they thought that the entire poison-gas thing was just an old wives’ tale. You and I know it’s not a hoax, but this is what they think. And when I ask them why they think it’s a hoax, sometimes their explanation is that you guys blocked the pink buses and not the green ones, which makes no sense if the “so-called nerve gas science” is correct. I’m not sure why they seem to think that you and the scientists are the same people, I’m just saying, I’ve heard this line of reasoning a few times. Now, after several decades the blue and orange buses did become affordable due to “Wright’s law” (or “experience curve effects”), but in the meantime we built up this huge fleet of dark green buses — “
“Well there you go! You admit that the blue and orange buses are affordable now! So we don’t need to build any pink buses! In fact, pink buses now cost much more than orange or blue!”
“Well, yeah, but look… first of all, orange buses only move when the sun is out and the blue ones only move when the wind is blowing, so I think we ought to have some pink buses in addition to the orange and blue ones, for a more balanced transit network — “
“Bullshit! You just install a sun cube in an orange bus and it runs fine when the sun isn’t shining! And you put a wind cube in the blue ones! Are you stupid, ignorant, or just libertarian?”
“I know that, but each sun cube or wind cube costs as much as an entire bus, and they only last four hours between charges — “
“We’ll just have some trucks shipping cubes around the country, haven’t you heard of transmission trucks? Look, it’s all explained in this study by Mark Z Jacobson, a Stanford Professor!”
“ — so sun cubes aren’t great in northern regions, like Canada, where there is much less sun in the wintertime, and that study by MZJ used a flawed model that assumed the United States could produce far more cubes than it actually can. Secondly, pink buses weren’t always expensive. They were decreasing in cost before 1970, and were cost-competitive with green buses at that time. Wright’s Law suggests that it is possible to decrease the cost again. You guys spent decades creating red tape that jacked up the price! The oldest ones were quite affordable!”
“Please! The older ones were death traps! They can kill dozens of people at once! They should be retired immediately!”
“Well, first of all, if we take the pink ones out of service then green, yellow and purple ones will have to be used more extensively to compensate for the loss of the pink ones. This action would cause many more people to die. Secondly, the new Pepto Bismol engine technology should be very safe at an affordable price point. Thirdly, and most importantly, most of the pink buses in service today are over 40 years old, and despite that, the statistics look like this:”
“Whatever, we can all see through your sophistry. You’re treating 0.07 like it’s a small number, but that represents hundreds of lives lost! And don’t give me that bullshit about Pepto Bismol engines — they are still pink!”
“Yes, I know, but the green bars represent tens of thousands of lives lost! So why did you oppose pink so much more than green?”
“Look, you’re being ridiculous. I’m barely 40 years old — I was a little kid when people were opposing pink more than green. Personally, I am opposed to both equally!”
“Uhh, okay, but why should you oppose them both equally? Is it not abundantly clear that green is worse, especially if the pink ones are built properly?”
“We’re going around in circles! I already told you, they can kill dozens of people at the same time! Can a green bus do that? Maybe the green ones are worse, but that just goes to show why we need 100% orange and blue. And don’t give me that “four hours” bullshit. If worse comes to worst, people can always walk. We didn’t need buses two hundred years ago, did we? You could even take a bicycle! Buses are really just a phallic symbol. Have you seen the way they slide into tunnels? And what about the containment? Do you really expect me to believe the containment can last 20,000 years? You’re such a corporate shill!”
“Well the pink engines are really small, in fact they are the only engines small enough that nerve-gas containment is practical in the first place, inside the form factor of a bus. If it were any other kind of engine, containment would be extremely large and expensive, which is why the green ones release so much nerve gas in the first place — nerve-gas containment just isn’t practical for that type of engine.”
“Wow, you have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m sorry but I have a life, and talking to you is exhausting. Go dump your ridiculous rationalizations on someone else. I have to prepare for the Greenpeace rally tonight.”
So anyway, I know that this is not you … but I do think that this kind of person has been extremely influential over the past 50 to 65 years. Why people reason in this manner, I do not know.
- Death per TWh chart from Our World In Data
- Book: The Nuclear Energy Option by Bernard Cohen (deceased), 1990. My favorite parts are chapter 5’s “Poll of Radiation Health Scientists” and chapter 9.
- How counting neutrons explains nuclear waste by Jason Crawford (the Roots of Progress guy)
- Why has nuclear power been a flop? by Jason Crawford, summarizing Jack Devanney who, mind you, is the principal engineer and architect of the ThorCon molten salt reactor power plant
- Meltdown World by me
 Lives lost have been scaled down by a factor of 100 or so in this analogy
 This is a reference to Helen Caldicott’s rich tapestry of antinuclear arguments.