Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: can our political institutions rise to the challenge?

We know the Fukashima nuclear plants were supposed to be safe, built to the most exacting engineering standards ... that hasn't worked out so well.

Californians have our own coastal nuke. The engineering and management of the plant don't inspire much confidence. This video is charming and chilling.

Some environmental and climate activists believe that nuclear energy has to be part of an array of bridge technologies to get civilization unhitched from carbon-dioxide belching coal and oil. Others look at costs, dangers and the unresolved waste storage problem and conclude "no way!"

In the light of the Fukashima crisis, Hugh Gusterson in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists brought an anthropologist's perspective to the future of nuclear power:

... it is hard to resist the conclusion reached by sociologist Charles Perrow in his book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies: Nuclear reactors are such inherently complex, tightly coupled systems that, in rare, emergency situations, cascading interactions will unfold very rapidly in such a way that human operators will be unable to predict and master them. To this anthropologist, then, the lesson of Fukushima is not that we now know what we need to know to design the perfectly safe reactor, but that the perfectly safe reactor is always just around the corner. It is technoscientific hubris to think otherwise.

This leaves us with a choice between walking back from a technology that we decide is too dangerous or normalizing the risks of nuclear energy and accepting that an occasional Fukushima is the price we have to pay for a world with less carbon dioxide. It is wishful thinking to believe there is a third choice of nuclear energy without nuclear accidents.

It is unlikely that all countries will make the same choice here. ... And what of the United States? ... A good way to think through this question is to look at how the United States responded to its last meltdown -- the meltdown of its banking system in 2008. To prevent a future recurrence of this disaster, the US government should have broken up banks that were "too big to fail," restored the Glass-Steagall Act's prohibitions on the commingling of investment and depository banks, and moved aggressively to regulate credit default swaps and financial derivatives. It did none of these things because the banks did not want it to, and the banks now run the show.

The US government, including its regulatory agencies, has been largely captured by the corporate sector, which, by means of campaign donations, is able to secure compliant politicians and regulators. ... we now have a government captured by special interests, paralyzed by partisanship, and confused by astroturfing political groups and phony scientific experts for sale to the highest bidder. Our democracy and our regulatory agencies are husks of what they once were. It is unclear that such a system is capable of learning any lessons or indeed of doing anything much beyond generating speeches and passing the responsibility for failure back and forth like a Ping-Pong ball between our two yapping political parties.

As in most aspects of our response to human-induced climate change, our ability to adapt is constrained not so much by lack of knowledge or even by cost, but mostly by whether our political institutions can still act for the general welfare. We have no choice to be to make them engage with this unfolding challenge.

H/t to A Change in the Wind for the clip.

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