Friday, 18 March 2011

An observation on Japan, nuclear energy, and capitalism

As well as shock and empathy, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan have inspired heated political debate. In particular, the fear of catastrophic meltdown and subsequent efforts to reduce the risk, have ignited arguments about whether nuclear energy is a safe and viable power source.

I don't know enough about nuclear energy as a whole to comment on this point. There are a variety of arguments both for and against it, and recent days have seen a rehashing of many of them. However, I'm going to reserve judgement on that issue until I've had the chance to look into it and review the evidence. Instead, with thanks to Adam Ford for bringing it to my attention, I wish to raise a more pressing point.

As Ford puts it;
The Fukushima Daiichi reactors currently being drowned in sea water by the Japanese military have 'Mark 1' containment vessels, which are apparently substandard, but far cheaper than 'Mark 2' vessels. 'Mark 1' has been known to be deficient since the 1970s, when Stephen Hanauer of the US Atomic Energy Commission declared that they should be discontinued due to "unacceptable safety risks". Radiation leaks have been measured at 1 millisevert - ten times the yearly dose correlated with a 1 per cent rise in cancer cases.
Even if we presume nuclear power to be a safe and viable long-term option, it is quite clear that all necessary precautions should be taken to make sure it is utilised safely. Arguing in favour of nuclear power, Greg at The Anti-Politician points out that because nuclear energy "has dangers just like any fuel system," it requires "the massive benefits of modern technology" to utilise it, rather than the "Soviet-era reactors and operative incompetence" that caused Chernobyl.

That the massive benefits of modern technology are not being implemented is just another example of, in Ford's words, "government unwillingness to spend money satisyfing poor people's needs." Hence why "the extent of the crisis which develops out of" any natural disaster "always reveals stark truths about the capitalist system."

As such, one thing we know for certain is that we cannot trust the safety and efficiency necessary to operate nuclear energy to an economic system which incentivises negligence and short-term gain over long-term viability.