When a loved one dies (as my brother did last month), one of the standard pieces of advice is to not make any big decisions. Don't reorganize your life in a moment of existential panic or remorse. Take your time. Cope.
But when thousands die, or when some sudden calamity befalls us, the tendency of politicians, journalists, policymakers and experts is to seize on the moment to advocate some radical changes. "A crisis," Rahm Emanuel famously declared in the early days of the Obama administration, "is a terrible thing to waste."
That this axiom didn't generate more controversy always struck me as bizarre. I mean, shouldn't it be "a crisis is a terrible thing to exploit"?
So here we go again in Japan, where the tragedy is literally too terrible to comprehend. The death toll, the scale -- the whole nation moved 8 to 12 feet -- the suddenness: It all overwhelms.
And yet the search for scapegoats and the thirst to confirm one's preferred policies kicked in almost immediately.
The most egregious examples were attempts to link, no matter how tenuously, the earthquake with climate change. Though in fairness, such naked balderdash has been far less common than it was in the wake of the Asian tsunami of 2004, never mind the riot of idiocy after Hurricane Katrina the following year (when, for example, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. blamed Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour: "Now we are all learning what it's like to reap the whirlwind of fossil fuel dependence which Barbour and his cronies have encouraged").
This time, all eyes are on the nuclear industry. Many opponents of nuclear power are pouncing not on the actual facts, but on the climate of fear. The reactors aren't contained yet, and the situation is very serious, but the vast majority of nuclear experts made it clear early on that there were would be no "Chernobyl" in Japan. The Japanese reactors are simply different (and superior, in part because the Russians built Chernobyl to allow harvesting of material for nuclear bombs). NBC science correspondent Robert Bazell explained Tuesday morning that this is certainly "not Chernobyl," but it is "worse than Three Mile Island."
True enough. But let's remember that no one was hurt, never mind killed, by the Three Mile Island accident. And over the last decade, the wind farm industry has seen more fatalities than the nuclear industry.
In Europe, where nuclear power is vastly more common than it is here, the Japanese earthquake is being exploited to the hilt. "If the Japanese," editorializes the British Independent newspaper, "with all their understandable inhibitions about anything nuclear and all their world-leading technology, cannot build reactors that are invulnerable to disaster, who can?"
Well, that's just it. Who said anything, anywhere, is invulnerable to disaster? At 9.0, this was Japan's biggest earthquake and could be the fourth largest ever recorded (it was even detected in Pennsylvania). Perhaps the standard shouldn't be whether Japan's reactor was "invulnerable" but whether it succeeded by taking such a beating without threatening much human life?
The damaged reactors are ruined, but so what? Cars are designed to be ruined after a major accident too. We routinely, and wisely, trade salvageability for survivability. Few skyscrapers in the United States can withstand a 9.0 earthquake; should we stop making tall buildings?
More to the point, much of the discussion about what this means for American nuclear energy leaves out that even the Japanese reactors are 30 years out of date compared with new designs. So-called Generation III plants have passive cooling systems that do not depend on the electricity grid. Hence any moratorium on new nuclear construction -- as being discussed in Congress -- would prevent building plants that have leapfrogged the problems we see in Japan.
And yet, many in the industry fear that the unscientific hysteria over the Japanese reactor will deal a mortal blow to nuclear power. You would at least think that climate change activists, who want fossil-free energy (and to bolster the reputation of scientists) would be throwing coolant on the public meltdown. After all, a major backlash against nuclear will be a boon not for wind and solar -- still profoundly inadequate to our energy needs -- but for coal and natural gas.
Of course the situation is grave. And who knows what the lessons of this tragedy will be? But rather than worry about letting this crisis go to waste, this strikes me as a great moment to simply cope.
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