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.