Japan Nuclear Crisis vs. the Titanic

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear threat and the sinking of the Titanic are both disasters caused by acts of nature – earthquake and tsunami in one case, an iceberg in the other – interacting with technology. Yet they have radically different implications. The Japanese incident has made nuclear power less acceptable, whereas the sinking of a ship, no matter how immense the casualties and spectacular the failure, did not stop shipping.

That the Titanic submerged quickly after hitting the iceberg showed that its design was defective; the structural solution was to stop building ships with the specific features that made the Titanic vulnerable and use other designs known to work well. But with nuclear power, at present there is no solution to the spent fuel problem.

At Fukushima, the spent-fuel pools remain a major threat.  A long-term alternative to storing the stuff in pools is to bury it. But nobody wants radioactive waste in their back yard—certainly not the Nevadans upon whom the US government wants to foist this country’s nuclear trash.

Nuclear accidents create widespread fear because their impact travels across geography and time. Radiation from Fukushima is detectable in the United States. The Soviet Union’s Chernobyl catastrophe is expected to cause many more cancer deaths over decades than the immediate fatalities from radiation disease. By contrast, damage from the Titanic was limited to one group of people at one particular time.

All these differences tie into a fundamental characteristic of the nuclear power industry, namely that it could not exist without government backing. The plants are privately owned, but the industry is a creature of ongoing public interventions, whether legal, financial or security-related.  At current prices for energy, nuclear power is not economically viable.

It would be even less viable if it were not protected in various ways. It benefits from special legal liability caps and tax breaks. The Obama administration wanted to give $36 billion in new loan guarantees for the construction of nuclear power plants.

At Fukushima, we’re watching the consequences of extensive government action coupled with unresolved technological problems.  The WSJ reports that the Fukushima disaster plans greatly underestimate the scope of a potential accident yet are consistent with the principles set forth by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The situation that has developed was discounted as so unlikely, no provision was made for it. Nuclear power, of course, is as heavily regulated as they come. A giant regulatory umbrella reassures people—until an awful debacle breaks out.

It is easy to say, as many are saying, that more comprehensive safety plans should be made and greater precautions taken against all possible threats. But there is a reason why this was not done and regulators did not push for it. It would make an already high-cost energy source even more prohibitively expensive. Who is going to pay for all that? Can you feel yet another hand in your taxpayer’s pocket?

At the time the Titanic went down, airplanes were already displacing long-distance sea transport, which disappeared in the following decades. But nowadays there are numerous cruise ships, in effect floating resorts. They haven’t had problems with icebergs and they pay their way. That’s how markets work.  Millions of people take cruises at acceptable prices and levels of safety.

The criterion that applies to all business should be applied to nuclear power generation. If it cannot pay its own way, including the cost of a full panoply of safety measures, legal liabilities and an acceptable method for disposing of used fuel, then it should not exist.

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About Chidem Kurdas 58 Articles

Chidem Kurdas is a financial journalist, analyst and writer.

Throughout her career she has held numerous positions, including: Research Analyst at Thomson Reuters, New York Bureau Chief at HedgeWorld, News Editor at Infovest21, Senior Associate Editor at Medical Economics Publications at The Thomson Corporation. She is currently Editor at Opalesque Futures Intelligence.

She holds a PhD in Economics from New School University.

Visit: Mutual Fund Smarts

4 Comments on Japan Nuclear Crisis vs. the Titanic

  1. The author’s article, while well meaning, misses the mark. While a veiled comparison does highlight the public’s priorities to accept risk, the fact remains, which the author did not highlight, that nuclear power is less risky than ship travel on a per capita death basis. When one considers that the enormous burden of proof for safety relies with the operators, opponents of nuclear technology will point out there is no act of God that the plants can be designed to and thus must not exist. We roll the dice every day. In this case, the 1 in a million shot happened. This does not mean an end to all things nuclear. The author can go get a chest x ray, and with an incompetent operator, get the dose of his life. The author should look up the Goiana Brazil disaster. No one is stopping using radiotherapy machines. Risk is a part of life, and nuclear energy still is safe compared to all technologies. The Southwest Air plane that had trouble shows that people will not give up flying. Likewise, nuclear provides the safest electricity for many people. Once the intervenor meddling (which lead to the billions in cost overruns) is done, and the reactors are more modernized, the market should respond favorably. If anything this crisis did not wipe out the risk of a tsunami, which has a death toll approaching 20,000. The author took his eye off the ball. Better tsunami warning and evacuation would have saved much more lives than the benign amount of radiation. More people panicking caused by media misinformation and hysteria will result in more deaths than the nuclear event. Yes it is tragic, but out of the ashes, nuclear energy will rise like the phoenix.

  2. Nuclear is a dead end industry. Not because of accidents but because of the waste it produces. The idea that nuclear energy is clean is a myth. The waste is just so toxic you can’t dump it into the air or anywhere else.

    They don’t keep spent fuel in pools of water because they can’t find a place to bury it. They keep it there because it has to cool off first or it will burn through what ever container you put it in.

    There is no long term solution for nuclear waste not because nobody wants it in their backyard… that is a myth too. Nobody has figured out an economical way to safely get rid of it so we keep it close to the surface where it at can be monitored.

    The idea that nuclear is a cheap source of energy is only valid if you ignore the the cost of disposing the waste and that is exactly what has been done for the last 40 years.

    With out being propped up by governments no private investor in their right mind would built a nuclear plant. Once you factor in the true cost of safe disposal of the waste in is just not viable.

    That is why nuclear as source of electricity for the public and industry is going down like the titanic. It was doomed from the start.

  3. One other note. Ice burgs are not natural disasters… No one would have died on the titanic if they had enough life boats.

    The reason they didn’t have enough life boats was the shipping company didn’t want to ruin the look of the ship for their rich first class customers.

    That is not a natural disastrous interacting with technology… It is just the same old thing human greed and stupidity.

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