Being Right: Reckless Waste



As Japan recovered from a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, so powerful that it shifted the country eight feet, the impending disaster at the Daiichi nuclear power plant took center stage. The world held its breath (and unnecessarily invested in potassium iodide) as im­ages of smoking reactors and weeping Japanese energy executives flashed across television screens. The New York Times ran a feature on the “faceless fifty” workers who remained at the plant, unafraid to die, Japan’s last hope for rescuing the damaged reactors.

Weather reports forecast nuclear snow and radioactive wind patterns, and with in­creasing hysteria we considered the possible fallout of another Chernobyl or Three Mile Island – or worse.

Thus, in the spirit of never letting a good crisis go to waste, many on the left com­mandeered the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake to question the efficacy and safety of nuclear power. Greenpeace, the nation’s leading anti-nuclear power advocacy group, revved up its opposition with a petition to end “taxpayer-funded giveaways to the nuclear power industry.” Even pro-nuclear energy lawmakers like Joe Lieberman favored a pause in construction on new reactors, while Mitch McConnell called for more deliberative pol­icymaking in the wake of the catastrophe.

Indeed, the possibili­ty of nuclear devastation has, in part, persuaded international discourse of the dangers of this source of clean energy. In his Los Angeles Times column from March 14, Jonah Goldberg cited an editorial in the British paper The Independent that asked, “If the Japa­nese, with all their un­derstandable inhibitions about anything nuclear and all their world-lead­ing technology, cannot build reactors that are invulnerable to disaster, who can?”

And there it is, the central fear driving the anti-nuclear power hys­teria (which, as Gold­berg points out, com­pletely lacks scientific basis). Nuclear power provides 20 per cent of our nation’s energy and, for all you envi­ronmental diehards, 80 per cent of carbon-neutral energy.

How preposterous to argue that its vulnerability to disaster should force us to recon­sider using it. First of all, we must take into account the circumstances: this earthquake is the fourth largest on record, hardly an ordinary occurrence, and American plants contain but two reactors, easier to maintain and control compared to Japan’s four.

Beyond this singular issue, however, lies a deeper and much more insidious concern: what are we willing to sacrifice for safety? Nuclear apocalypse appeals to approximately no one; certainly using a volatile source of power with such grave consequences calls for caution. But to count out something so efficient because of the potential for disaster?

You have a one in 18,585 chance of dying every time you climb into a car. Fatal ac­cidents happen daily; but everyone (aside from the unfortunate few amaxophobics out there) knows the benefits of driving far outweigh the potential – not even definite – costs.

Besides, we’ve done what we can to make cars and roads as safe as possible, and yet disaster can still strike: icy roads, sharp turns or mechanical failure don’t disappear simply because of a five-star crash safety rating. Some things are simply beyond our control.

And control is what lies at the heart of this and many of the policy debates taking shape today. The culture of fear-mongering that has taken root in this country – whether about climate change, economic collapse, healthcare or radioactive mutation – is eating away at our freedom.

It all starts with something like, say, a nuclear disaster in Japan. It gets us thinking, “What if that happened here? I don’t like the idea of sprouting a third eye.” So we recon­sider an efficient, clean and safe source of energy because of what could be. Where do we go from there? Well, we already know: nationalizing healthcare and eliminating an individual’s right to take risks with his or her own life.

We’re on the slippery slope of answering fear with pragmatism, and with every inch we slide, we find ourselves losing sight of the individualism we as Americans have long cherished.

We would be trading it for false promises of security from tentative doom. If we make total prevention of disaster the standard by which we make policy, we’ll live our lives as Forster characterized in Howards End: “With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.”

Sell back that potassium iodide you bought at Regina Benjamin’s behest. After all, there’s only a 10 million to one chance you’ll ever need it.