Free Markets, Free People

Japan’s nuclear problem and panic as policy

First, take a look at ABC News’ coverage of the nuclear problem in Japan. I don’t know about you, but it seems tinged with emotional sensationalism to me. That’s not to say the problem isn’t obviously serious, but it has that emotional element to it that, well, isn’t very objective. It also implies that the result is likely to be from a doomsday scenario.


Now watch this segment:


What you see here is the rush to judgment. The first thing that happens is politicians, seeing this as fertile ground for image polishing (seeming to take seriously what has been trumped as serious and seeming to take action to address a perceived problem) jump in front of a camera to make the case for protecting the public by implying that we’re in the same boat as the Japanese and they’re the only ones who can save us.

Do you remember the map of the US in which the similar nuke sites to those in Japan flashed up?  Remember the map I showed you about significant earthquakes in the US for the past 200 years?  Theirs was up there quickly, and I may have missed it, but few if any of those plants fell in the real earthquake prone areas.  So to me, getting in front of a camera and pretending we’re in the same situation as that of the Japanese is simply scare mongering and irresponsible.  And that applies to both the politicians and news media types doing this.

It brings me to an Abe Greenwald piece in Commentary’s Contentions.  It is entitled “Panic as a Policy”.  He sets the stage by noting that Germany has gone absolutely bats over the Japanese crisis to the point that Angela Merkel, in the a political campaign, has decided to dump one of her most important policies of her second term – the extension of nuclear reactor lifetimes by an average of 12 years beyond their original scheduled phase-out date of 2012.  48 hours after the Japanese crisis, she ordered a three month moratorium on the extension.  7 of the oldest power stations will now be shut down immediately pending a 3 month safety review.

Says Greenwald:

Hysteria on the largest scale possible has become the default official response to all crises. A lay public furnished with near-instantaneous media coverage can be counted on to demand immediate and absolute measures so that the crisis can be scrubbed from consciousness, however crudely or illogically. And over-monitored leaders will be sure to comply. Today a politician can lose his job if he doesn’t swiftly change historical precedent to fit the frenzied misinterpretation of a still-breaking news story. This will continue to yield atrocious consequences.

I cannot agree more.  We have become, in many cases, victims of manufactured hysteria.  We get a fire hose effect of media stories, most of them pushed out in a way to grab attention and many incomplete or simply wrong. 

Did you note, for instance, the people ABC chose to interview for the 2nd piece?  The “GE 3”.  Labeled as “whistleblowers”, they layer the gloom and doom predictions with the supposed veneer of righteousness.  But again, these reactors have been operating safely for 40 years and it has taken a 9.0 earthquake, 33 foot tsunami and a total lack of power to get them in this position.  Also sort of blown by are the “safety upgrades” they’ve made since the reactors were built.   Anyone who thinks that these reactors didn’t receive many, many upgrades over their lifetimes really doesn’t understand the industry.  Finally, not a dissenting voice was sought out or if they were, their opinion wasn’t aired.  So you’re left with the impression that a fatally flawed product was allowed to be produced by an evil corporation in cahoots with various power companies, etc.

And, of course, you’re left with the impression that something must be done.  Which brings us to Greewald’s second point:

We have become accustomed to seeing collective shock elevated to the realm of policy. In fact, it’s what we expect of responsible leadership. There’s an oil spill? Ban drilling. A shooting? Forbid even speaking in martial metaphors. A nuclear accident? Kill nuclear energy. This crude emotionalism is actually liberalism at warp speed. It demands that governments alleviate the immediate discomfort of the onlooker without regard for accuracy or consequence. It will produce many more historic disasters than it can manage.

Again, I could not agree more.  I’ve called it “panic legislation” for years and it never turns out well.  The unfortunate fall-out of this (no pun intended) is probably the death knell of the nuclear power industry.  And, ironically, the fallback will be fossil fuel, most likely natural gas.  It is the cheapest and most efficient way to go, frankly and I have no problem with that, however, nuclear energy is still a clean, emissions free and powerful energy source that should be exploited in my humble opinion.  I know President Obama has reiterated his support of nuclear energy here, but let’s be honest, that doesn’t mean much.  If you think he’s going to get out in front of something panic driven polls say he should avoid, then I have some beachfront land in Nevada you might be interested in.

Greenwald’s points are important ones.  While we have access to 24/7 media and the media, in my opinion, often acts irresponsibly in their reporting, we have the responsibility to fill in the voids and gather the information that paints a more complete picture of what is happening.  One of the reasons for the rise of online media and blogging is a real need and desire by many to do that.  And the two reports by ABC only emphasize that point.

Panic legislation based on biased reporting and hysterical public reaction are no way to run a government.  One of the reasons I often don’t jump on a story right away is I’ve found the first bit of reporting is usually wrong and/or incomplete. Much of it is overly sensational.  I prefer to sit back and let it develop a bit, and gather as much information as I can before offering a view or opinion.  Unfortunately, that is not the media culture we have today, and for the most part we are ill served by it.  We are also ill served by self-serving politicians who deem every crisis an opportunity to advance their careers by pushing more government on us (the Rahm Emanuel rule – “never let a crisis go to waste”).

I’m not sure how we break this cycle, but as Greenwald says continuing it may “produce many more historic disasters than [government] can manage.” I’m not saying what is happening in Japan isn’t critical, dangerous or important. I’m saying instead that the rush to judgment isn’t taking into context what put the Japanese in that situation (quake,tsunami,power outage). If it was we’d understand that the likelihood of such a disaster visiting our nuclear plants is probably about the same as an asteroid of devastating size hitting the earth.

Panic at this time isn’t rational and the hysteria that seems to be building is unwarranted given the context in which the situation developed. Unfortunately I don’t think that is going to stop the panic legislation that will result and, as usual, we’ll all end up being the poorer for it.



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18 Responses to Japan’s nuclear problem and panic as policy

  • 9.0 Earthquake
    Massive Tsumani

    And still no Chernobyl?

    Why all the hysteria?

    • Because it improves ratings and sells paper!
      Wish I’d invested in iodide tablet makers LAST week.  As long as people are going to be stupid I might as well join the predators and feast on the passing herd, it’s supposed to be what I do as a conservative capitalist.

    • This should be viewed much like an airplane crash (although nuke plants are hugely more expensive).
      There are probably design oversights that will be revealed once a complete investigation goes forward (why did the backup generators fail ?, among others).  Virtually no plants are designed for a 9.0 earthquake, so this may be the best teaching experience to look at the effects on portions of the plant that are non-nuclear as well as nuclear.
      I’m sure there are lessons to be learned that will make nuclear (and non-nuclear) energy safer, even without an earthquake.

      • The hysteria in NYC over this is so laughable.  IS INDIAN POINT (our local nuke concern) SAFE!??!??  CAN IT HAPPEN HERE!??!?!


        Nobody bothers to point out if NYC was that close to a 9.0 quake and a resultant tsunami, every single building would be destroyed, the people would be starved out/rioted to death within a few days.  A mini-Chernobyl would be the absolute least of our issues at that point.

        But hey, who needs logic?  12 point scare headlines are kooooool

        • dude wtf if a 12 pnt headline in cool then obviously there is something f*cked with ur head…….the nuke damage in japan is only 70 miles surrounding it not anywhere near NYC they are to far to be damaged same with any north american city…..grow up its not gonna happen and logic is not helping anybody over there. and it is most definately not helping NYc or the US at all…. seriously grow up and quit acting like the world is gonna end…its not  not next year anyway and most definatly not before christmas people only think it is because of the mayan clander if it was going to end they would be setting up fo rhtis but this is like the 3rd time they have said this and the russians think it is gonna end in 2036 once again i doubt it at all

  • And they’re back at it ‘the Plume’ will hit the west coast of the US according to UN projections, it will be ‘detectable’, an ABC Newsdude got ‘radiation’ on his shoes while he was in Japan.  Maybe he should stand in his kitchen in front of his granite counter top with his detector, or in a basement in New England, ya know, just to see what happens.
    Given that we have detectors that can identify an underground nuclear explosion across the world, I’m just not that impressed with the term ‘detectable’ as being accurate.  Any mention of that in the article?  nah…that would take all the PANIC!!!!! out of it for the 1/2 of people who read past the headline and the half again who got past the 1st paragraph.
    The other half who only read the headline?  They’re headed for the pharmacy to get their magical iodide tablets.
    I can hardly wait for the panic when EVERYONE can’t get them.   I expect we’ll get breathless new stories of people standing in line for hours, people outraged that there’s not enough for all, people demanding the government DO SOMETHING!!!!!!
    Lions and Tigers and Bears!  Oh my!

  • If there is a point that many deserve hysteria, or at least some serious effort, is in regard to the pools of spent fuel rods now at virtually all of US nuclear reactor facilities.  The pathetic efforts by the US government to find a permanent storage facility, buttressed by idiotic political maneuvering, are leaving an unnecessary potential problem in each and every US reactor facility.

  • The 9.0 earthquake is not what damaged the reactors. The tsunami that knocked out the backup generators is what started the chain of failures. When the earthquake hit, all the reactors started the correct shutdown procedures. The general public is simply ignorant of technology, engineering, basic physics, and so on. The average person gets his scientific “knowledge” from movies and television. When I am dictator, I will require at least one HS year of basic engineering, physics, economics. We can easily find time in the academic calendar for this by dumping sex ed for cucumbers and self-esteem courses. Local school boards will easily find the money for these courses because I will also eliminate, not cut but eliminate, the fed Department of Education. This will immediatly remove all stupid regulations that only serve to waste time and money.

    • I was struck yesterday when somebody refered to the Department of Education as DOE, a name I had always attached to the Department of Energy.  Obviously, when we have two federal government departments with the same initials, one of them has to go.

      • “somebody refered to the Department of Education as DOE,”

        Pronounced “D’oh!”, as in Homer Simpson. 

  • One has to wonder how all this will affect Øbama’s collage basketball picks?

  • There is a human tendency to miscalculate risk.  Consider: nuclear energy is inherently risky, there is no completely assured safe plant design.   With all the precautions one can take, let’s say there is a probability of some major crisis once every fifty years.  Now let’s assume that this crisis kills or causes radiation poisoning to 100,000.  Pretty horrid.  Do we want to take that risk?
    Now, let’s look at driving.  In the US there are about 45,000 traffic deaths a year.  In ten years that’s 450,000.  If compared to the fifty year assumption above, that would be 22,500,000.  Humans react to the spectacular.  9-11 did not do that much damage to the US, or kill that many people.  It was the spectacle.  To be sure, there are issues with nuclear plants about the potential for “unlivable” regions (which would be a big deal in Japan) but overall the idea that this is a strong argument against nuclear energy is weak.   The same calculation needs to be taken to compare the impact of nuclear energy vs. a fossil fuel alternative when thinking about global warming.   We need to learn from this (key: have back up power, be prepared for floods), but it’s not really an argument against nuclear energy.

    • The deaths (immediate and subsequent cancer victims) because of Chernobyl were on the order of 1,000 people, give or take a few hundred.  So your 100,000 figure is quite high, particularly since the setup at Fukushima is apparently better designed than than Chernobyl, thus less likely to result in as much release of radiation.  You’re right about the loss of real estate from contamination.
      Your global warming arguments are quite faulty, however.  Warren Meyer has a New Roundup of scientific arguments debunking some of the underlying alarmist assertions.  As he points out, even if the alarmists predictions are true, the cost of preventing the impact of AGW is estimated at $7 trillion per yer for ever degree C (that’s trillion with a “T”, and that’s per annum, not total).  So the Chicken Little “no pressure” game is trying to convince people to incur great costs, but costs which are but a drop in the ocean compared to what is promised to be the return on such efforts.  It’s like selling cookies to help tsunami victims.
      When alternative energy technologies advance enough to make them more profitable than hydrocarbons (that’s without hiding the cost with huge government subsides or ignoring the loss column), energy companies won’t need incentives.  They’ll do it for the profit.  Until then, operating on faith that the technology will be there and hamstringing industry today is completely unwarranted.

  • And here’s part of the predictable panic wave – right on schedule….
    Chem suits and gas masks, oh my

  • Your last statement shows your true motivations perfectly. “as usual, we’ll all end up being the poorer for it.”Money has driven the whole nuclear industry. The risks are beyond human understanding because the spent fuel rods will out last us all and we have no way to deal with them. Its not just the melt downs its the radioactive material that is a byproduct of all nuclear energy that makes it such stupid energy source! you want to see alternative energy system take off then lets transfer all the money and resources from
    Nuclear to the alternatives. We cannot wait for the technology of the future we must spent the money and make it happen NOW! I woolud rather sell cookies to help then sit back on my lazy ass and wait for the perfect fix. Its better to act then to complain.

  • George Monbiot, longtime opponent of nuclear power, in The Mail & Guardian

    A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

    Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.