The Cost of Doing Business
Since the Fukushima catastrophe, leaders of the nuclear industry have uttered many apologies and promises to improve safety, and concrete steps have been taken to do this. But there have also been many shrugs and instances of surprising disregard for the concerns of victims. If the threshold of safety used to be 5 mSv/year, now it is 20, but don’t worry, they say, stay where you are and carry on with your lives. They give the clear impression sometimes that they think level 7 accidents actually aren’t such a big deal. Even if one happens every ten or twenty years, they seem to be telling the world that nuclear is still worthwhile and necessary.
Soon after the Fukushima catastrophe, Hans Blix, former director general of the IAEA, said, “Fukushima is a bump in the road and will also lead to a further strengthening of the safety of nuclear power.” In 1986, shortly after the Chernobyl catastrophe, Blix’s underling at the IEAE, head of nuclear safety Morris Rosen, said, “Even if an accident of this kind occurred every year, I would consider nuclear power an attractive source of energy.” This is after all, a capitalist enterprise. Nuclear energy has always had an other-worldly, magical status which made us believe that governments would treat it with utmost care and security. But it turns out that it is managed just like the oil industry, the financial sector or any other segment of the economy.
Last month (June 2013) there was a disaster at sea that went relatively unreported, considering its overall awesomeness. The incident could serve as a metaphor for how risk is managed in the nuclear industry, as well as many others.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries makes outsized cargo ships that, we now know, can break up in rough seas. There was always the chance that one would break in the middle and leave thousands of shipping containers slowly sinking in the sea. The MOL Comfort broke in two in the Indian Ocean in an accident which was unprecedented for a ship of this scale, with half of the ship sinking quickly while the other half was towed away, eventually catching fire and also sinking before it reached safe harbor. What looked like a colossal engineering failure can also be viewed as a well-calculated risk worth taking. Mitsubishi could make smaller ships, but over a long period of time, the shipping industry will be more profitable if it uses these enormous ships, even if the cost of the occasional sinking is accounted for, and of course the environmental damage is ignored as what economists call “an externality.”
This metaphor holds up if indeed the MOL Comfort sinking was an accident. Although it broke up in very rough seas, there have been rumors on blogs that it was loaded with a large shipment of arms supplied by the US for Syrian rebel forces. Commenters on blogs have noted that it wouldn’t take a missile strike to break the ship. A submarine could pass underneath and release blasts of air that would disturb the buoyancy of the ship and induce stress fractures. Alternatively, a bomb could be detonated several meters below the ship and the shock wave would do the damage, unnoticed by the crew on board. Or perhaps it wasn’t weapons for rebels but rather that terrorist nuke in a shipping container that we have been warned about for years. The US government might have learned about it and sunk the MOL Comfort as a pre-emptive measure.
All such rumors are completely unverifiable. It’s hard to imagine that any investigative journalist is going to get a look at the ship's manifest, and that would not likely tell the truth about the cargo if it was indeed what the rumors claim. The relative neglect by the media fans the flames of speculation, but then the neglect probably stems from the fact that no one died and the incident happened far from shore. The builder, the shipping company and the insurance companies are content to see this sinking get as little attention as possible. Yet there is something grotesque and awesome about these images of the fuel, the monstrous ship, and 4,500 cargo containers going to the bottom of the sea. I would have thought this would be big news.