When industry lying is the norm, concern about nuclear energy is not hysteria. It's a fight for our lives.
Like British Petroleum, the Tokyo Electric Power Company has a history of playing fast and loose with the truth and endangering lives. So let's drop the "What, Me Worry?" routine about nuclear energy. When cover-ups and preparing falsified records are part of the corporate culture, we're not just getting hysterical, as some blindly pro-nuclear power folks would have it.
We're getting real.
The horrible disaster we saw in the Gulf showed us plenty about what happens when industry and regulatory entities get too cozy and companies like BP are left to self-report on safety and are then actually trusted -- by people as high up as the president of the United States -- when they do. People die. Our natural world is polluted.
Admittedly there are no means of producing energy that are entirely without risk. Birds do get caught in windmills. But when something goes wrong at a nuclear facility, ENTIRE CITIES CAN BE WIPED OUT. So while nuclear hawks blithely tell us that smart companies and their engineers will take care of making nuclear energy safe and sound, let's remind them of the actual record.
For example, here's a little line-up of TEPCO lies:
- In 2002, Michael Zilenzieger reported that top officals TEPCO were forced to resign "after admitting that the company had covered up safety violations and falsified records at three of its largest nuclear power plants".
- In 2006, the government demanded that TEPCO "check past data after it reported that it had found falsification of coolant water temperatures at its Fukushima Daiichi plant in 1985 and 1988, and that the tweaked data was used in mandatory inspections at the plant, which were completed in October 2005."
- And in 2007, TEPCO reported that it "had found more past data falsifications, though this time it did not have to close any of its plants."
Then there were some minor matters of building on fault lines that they claim not to have known about and releasing radiation into the atmosphere. And so on.
Am I saying that we need to abandon nuclear energy? No, I am not. I am sympathetic to the powerful need for clean energy in the face of alarming climate change. But there are very compelling reasons to proceed with a hefty dose of caution and skepticism. The nuclear power industry is designed to produce private profit, which gives corporate executives irresistible incentives to lie and distort. They have a big temptation to pay off politicians and capture regulatory agencies. As I wrote last year in the wake of the Gulf disaster,
[We face] the detachment, rapaciousness, and short-term vision associated with the modern global Corporation, whose latest poster child is BP (more of a bank, incidentally, than a traditional oil company). No matter what the spokespeople say (very little of which makes any sense), the Corporation is not interested in self-reflection, morality, or the health of our shining seas. It wants profits, period. And it will take us as close to the brink of disaster as it possibly can to get them. Inevitably, it will push us over the edge."
Even in a world where human greed and error do not compromise the safety of nuclear plants (and you'll let me know when that world exists), Mother Nature can throw a catastrophic curveball, or a whole series of them, that makes all the bells and whistles of new technology suddenly -- and woefully -- inadequate. There's also the terrifying problem that nuclear energy tends to beget the production of nuclear weapons in the countries that pursue it. And once that genie's out of the bottle, there's no putting it back in.
America's nuclear program will now be subject to renewed scrutiny. Too bad it took a disaster like this to bring us to common sense.
Lynn Parramore is the editor of New Deal 2.0, Media Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute fellow, and the author of Reading the Sphinx.