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Sunday, April 15, 2012
The Titanic and the nuclear fiasco
On the night of April 15, 1912, 100 years ago today, the allegedly unsinkable luxury liner RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic after hitting an iceberg. Of the ship's 2,200 passengers, 1,500 lost their lives. Since then the Titanic has become an object lesson, an obsession and the subject of countless books and films.
The theories about why the largest and most expensive ship of its time failed in its promise and dropped to the ocean floor are plentiful and diverse. Investigators, researchers and conspiracy theorists have variously blamed the ship's design, the laxness of the crew, the inferior quality of the ship's rivets and hull steel, the poor design of the watertight compartments, record high tides, ocean mirages and of course, the infamous iceberg. Clearly, though, it was no one single cause, but a "perfect storm" of factors. The disaster would have been mitigated, though, by less arrogance and more precaution.
Presenting technology as completely safe, trustworthy or miraculous may seem to be a thing of the past, but the parallels between the Titanic and Japan's nuclear power industry could not be clearer. Japan's nuclear power plants were, like the Titanic, advertised as marvels of modern science that were completely safe. Certain technologies, whether they promise to float a luxury liner or provide clean energy, can never be made entirely safe.
In both cases, contingencies plans failed: the Titanic carried too few lifeboats; Tokyo Electric Power Co. failed to develop evacuation and backup plans for its Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant. The design, construction, materials and safety checks were all compromised. The main difference is that the catastrophic effects of the Fukushima fiasco are more far-reaching and long lasting. The plant's name has already become synonymous with disaster.
Not long after the Titanic sank, the company that built the ship retrofit its other two sister ships with stronger hulls. Was the company admitting a flaw or just being careful? Or were they being, at last, wise? Given what's at stake, the government, Tepco and the rest of Japan's power companies must act prudently and retrofit the nation's other nuclear power plants with stronger safeguards in the short term and, in the long term, concede that other forms of energy are demonstrably safer.
In an article not long after the Titanic sank, writer Joseph Conrad commented on the tragedy by noting the "chastening influence it should have on the self-confidence of mankind." That lesson should be applied to all "unsinkable" undertakings that might profit a few by imperiling the majority of others.