From the Halls of Fukajima

If there is one real lesson to be taken from the failures at Fukajima it is this: in an economy where the primary mission is to maximize profit, safety will always take a back seat. That is true whether the potential damage is the death of a few otherwise expendable coal miners, the destruction of the entire Louisiana fishing industry, or the devastation of the Japanese coast line and poisoning of thousands of citizens. Profit comes first. People who do not keep an eye on the profit bottom line lose their jobs.

A lot has been said about how the Japanese, being such technical geniuses and all, could surely be trusted not to screw this up. This assumption is wrong on a couple of counts. First, the Japanese are no more technical genius than Americans. We think they are because they made damn good cars, particularly in the early years when they had to prove to the American market that they really did make good cars. So they overcompensated and beat the crap out of the American car makers, whose primary interest was in selling junk that had to be replaced every three years. But the Japanese have lately proven they are also fallible in the car business, and now in nuclear power they look no smarter than the Soviets.

The truth is that the Japanese industry, like the American Nuke industry, has a long history of making mistakes and sweeping them under the rug. It also has a regulator that is happy never to take the carpets out for a dusting. The Japanese industry is “a scandal-ridden energy industry in a comfy relationship with government regulators often willing to overlook safety lapses,” according to the Huffington Post.

These include radiation leaks and failures of worker safety overlooked because of the potential scandal, but also because of the cost associated with fixing the problem. No bigger cost issue faces the Japanese industry than the problem of ensuring the safety of existing plants. Fukashima is old, outdated, and built when knowledge of potential damage was far less than perfect. So are many other Japanese plants. If there is a lesson from Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, it’s that there should be alternate and independent power sources on site at all times. While this was obvious, no one wanted to take the lesson to heart because of the cost of installing and maintaining adequate power backup. How soon do you think Japan will begin to install fool-proof back up power at its other nuclear plants?

Of course the US situation is nearly identical. A Union of Concerned Scientists report recently noted that Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspections conducted in 2010 failed to discover or correct 14 major issues at critical power plants. Note that the NRC only audits about five percent of nuclear power plant activity annually. Thus, it missed 14 major incidents while looking at five percent of the activity… how many overlooked incidents were not audited at all?

The truth is there is no real motivation for the nuclear power industry to be attendant to safety. Like the coal industry, its motivation is money. Managers are not paid for incidents that do not happen. Spending money to ensure nothing bad happens is never rewarded, even though failure to be prepared is often punished. In addition to being paid to play golf, managers are paid for the one thing that can be easily measured by the stockholders… the amount of profit that they show at the end of each year. If they can boost profit by cutting the safety budget, they will do it every time.

It is not as though there is a regulator in place motivated to ensure the interests of the general public are met. The general public does not have a strong voice in Washington. Where the regulator works, money talks and bullshit walks. In Washington, the Nuclear Industry does a lot of talking because it has a lot of money. The Industry spends a lot of it buying votes. The bureaucrats at the NRC have always been more pro industry than pro public, and they are certainly not going to risk the wrath of GE’s favorite Congressman for the sake of an extra margin of safety.

The truth is, as long as profit is a motive in the nuclear industry, there will never be a safe nuclear plant. If we really want safe nuclear power, we need to convert all nuclear plants to not-for-profit cooperatives whose first interest is delivering safe power to the people.

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