OPINION: Nuclear power requires perfection
By Jonathan Schell
NEW YORK, June 24, Kyodo
It has been three months since the Fukushima nuclear power disaster, and a clear global consequence is emerging.
The "nuclear renaissance" that supposedly was getting under way before the accident looks as though it has been stopped, and the world may even have begun the long process of getting out of the nuclear power business altogether.
In Japan, of course, all of nuclear power is under review, and Prime Minister Naoto Kan has had to assure the country that he will step down after the Fukushima crisis is over.
In Italy, the people have voted down nuclear power. The Swiss parliament has set the same course. Germany will phase out nuclear power altogether.
The German case is of special historical importance. In 1938, the chemist Otto Hahn first split uranium atoms, releasing the energy in them, making possible both nuclear power and nuclear bombs.
In this respect, the nuclear age began in Germany. Will it also end there?
However that may be, it is interesting to inquire how this result is being reached. The basic answer is not that governments have reconsidered. Ordinary people have.
The reversal in the German policy came after the ruling party suffered defeats in local elections. In Italy, it was the voting public that vetoed the government's plans.
Ordinary people are not nuclear experts. But they know some things that many experts prefer to forget. They know that even in the best-run enterprises, things go awry.
The contractor takes a kickback. The operator at the control panel falls asleep. The battery runs out sooner than expected. The scientist shades his findings because he has received a grant from the industry under inspection.
All this forms the inescapable background when the big, rare challenges arise: the earthquake, the tsunami, the airliner crash into the containment structures.
Of course the people in charge come up with new, improved safety plans -- more batteries, more generators, thicker containment walls, more security guards.
But the truth known to ordinary people is that these are subject to the same ineradicable human foibles as the old safety plans. When the stakes are a cost overrun on a factory or heavier taxes or potholes in a highway, everyone eventually accepts the cost and moves on.
But when the cost could be six nuclear reactors belching radiation wherever the winds have to carry it, rendering large territories uninhabitable, the cost is too high.
Nuclear power requires perfection. But human life is a scene of error and turmoil. The problem is not a broken valve or an inadequate flood wall or even the earthquake or tsunami.
It is the fundamental mismatch between fallible human beings and a universal power that is too great for us to control. That is what Fukushima teaches and that is what the world is learning.