by Barry Edelson


Courting Disaster

Japan's nuclear crisis is an object lesson
in why democracy matters


"Whether the citizen lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state and its records is whether the citizen is alive or dead."
— J.M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year


If you have ever been to Stockholm, you have probably seen the Vasa, a 16th-century warship that was raised from the bottom of the city's harbor 50 years ago, and is now housed in a striking waterfront museum purpose-built for its display. The Vasa was among a number of ships that were meant to bring the Swedish king's growing power to bear on the 30 Years' War that was then afflicting Continental Europe. It was a very large ship for its day, designed to carry a lot of guns, though it was not otherwise extraordinary. It would probably have been thoroughly forgotten had it not been for its one distinguishing feature: it was not sea-worthy. The Vasa sank in the harbor on its maiden voyage, barely a mile from where it was constructed. No one dared tell the king, who had personally specified the ship's dimensions, that his design rendered the ship top-heavy and likely to capsize, which is precisely what happened. The extremely cold and salt-free waters of Stockholm's inner harbor turned out to be a perfect environment to preserve the Vasa, not merely as an uncommonly intact artifact of 17th-century naval warfare, but also as a relic of folly and vanity on a grand scale.

The Vasa comes to mind in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, as that nation struggles to contain the nuclear emergency that is unfolding on its northeastern coast. It has been reported that Japan's nuclear reactors were engineered to withstand a natural disaster of a severity that would occur only once every 3,000 to 5,000 years. Yet here we are, barely a half-century into the era of nuclear-generated energy, and an extremely rare event that could breach the safety precautions of these very well-built reactors has just occurred. It is difficult to believe that in a society as advanced as Japan, and, moreover, one that prides itself on its technologcal sophistication, no one understood that even though an event may happen only once every few thousand years, it could very well be today. Even more important, we are compelled to ask whether there is something in the nature of hierarchical societies that makes them more or less likely to believe in their own perfectibility, and therefore more prone to overlook whatever flaws may be lurking in their vastly complex undertakings.

One is hesitant to stereotype an entire people, but comparative international polling has shown the Japanese to be more trusting of their government than the citizens of almost any other country, and therefore more obedient to its instructions. The general order, absence of looting and calm acceptance of a terrible reality that the Japanese have displayed over the last week, are not characteristics that we have seen in every other country in times of comparable distress, including our own. This is admirable in its way, of course, but it has its limits. A highly structured system in which personal views are more likely to be sublimated for the greater good is also one in which legitimate doubts may also fail to be voiced. In the face of overwhelming calamity, even Japan's famous discipline has begun to crack a bit, as glimmers of discontent have been seen in the population's skepticism over whether their leaders have been entirely forthcoming about the extent of the danger from the leaking reactors.

Nonetheless, Japan is a democratic nation, where civil preparedness is an almost sacred duty, and apparently excellent safety and evacuation measures have indeed been honed to near perfection over the decades. The response to this situation cannot even be compared to that of the world's other worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl, where routinely shoddy Soviet methods and an appalling indifference to human welfare were a catastrophe quite literally waiting to happen. Who in a totalitarian society would dare open his mouth to say, "This plan isn't going to work"? It would not be courageous, it would be idiotic. Challenging one's superiors would instantly end one's career and any chance of a decent life for oneself or one's family (at the very least). It would also accomplish absolutely nothing. The flawed design would continue to be carried out, only with some other more compliant functionary at the controls. There are snitches and collaborators in tyrannical regimes, but no whistleblowers. It makes one wonder to what degree we can trust the Chinese Communist Party to build safe nuclear power plants. We would be foolish to put our faith in the assumption that no modern or modernizing state has an interest in contaminating its own people, whether out of concern or mere self-interest, because we know too much already about the poisoning of baby formula, and the use of paint containing lead and cadmium in children's toys. China has not exactly proven itself a trustworthy guardian of hazardous materials, nor sufficiently communitarian to overwhelm the self-interest of individuals.

Having an open, democratic country is no guarantee of safety, either. Our excessively individualistic culture is excellent at transforming selfishness into an engine of economic prosperity, but somewhat less reliable when it comes to enormous projects that require exceptional levels of cooperation (q.v., Deepwater Horizon). But one clear difference between the accident at Three-Mile Island and the one at Chernobyl is that, whatever may have gone wrong at the plant in Pennsylvania, there was no way that it could have been hidden once it happened: not in a country with a free press ravenous for news, and a political culture in which all parties are only too willing to point out the faults of their opponents or of persons in authority. In a fractious and argumentative society like ours, in which rifts are far more evident and differences of opinion are more unabashedly and emotionally expressed, there is, if anything, a risk of too much compromise. Still, a system in which decision-making is messy but inclusive is in most instances, and in the long run, going to produce better results than one in which experts are never questioned and authority is challenged at the risk of one's life. The United States and the Soviet Union both had successful space programs, for example, and both had fatal accidents. But need we point out the obvious: we are still here, and the U.S.S.R. no longer exists. The most serious problem for us is that, even though we live under a democratic government, by and large we work under dictatorships, where the boss's word is final and being a troublemaker is almost never rewarded. The difference, of course, is that corporate authority, however ruthless in its business practices, is comparatively benign: people aren't tried in kangaroo courts, send to the gulag or summarily executed for pointing out that something isn't right about some idea concocted behind closed doors. We cannot make the same assertion about the governments of China or Iran.

Perhaps having an open society ought to be a pre-condition for nuclear activity. The world has already acknowledged the necessity of openness, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty does require of its signatories to subject their nuclear facilities to international scrutiny. But, as in the cases of Iran and North Korea, despotic regimes that are determined to play with fire, despite international disapproval, can largely get away with it. All the more reason why it might be best to keep even "peaceful" uses of nuclear power out of the hands of closed countries. Japan's ordeal provides evidence enough that disaster can strike even in a free society, and that even democratically elected governments have a tendency to be unnecessarily secretive. We don't have to imagine how badly things can go wrong, because we witnessed it once already, at Chernobyl — whose radiation was first detected and reported, coincidentally, in far-away, democratic Sweden, even while Soviet authorities were insisting that everything was fine. A nuclear accident is not just a national problem. All the countries of the world have a life-and-death stake in how every other country manages its reactors. Radioactive fallout does not distinguish between the evil and the righteous, but rains equal doses on all our heads.

March 19, 2011



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