Japan Nuclear Crisis vs. the Titanic

by Chidem Kurdas

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear threat and the sinking of the Titanic are both disasters caused by acts of nature – earthquake and tsunami in one case, an iceberg in the other – interacting with technology. Yet they have radically different implications. The Japanese incident has made nuclear power less acceptable, whereas the sinking of a ship, no matter how immense the casualties and spectacular the failure, did not stop shipping. 

That the Titanic submerged quickly after hitting the iceberg showed that its design was defective; the structural solution was to stop building ships with the specific features that made the Titanic vulnerable and use other designs known to work well. But with nuclear power, at present there is no solution to the spent fuel problem.

At Fukushima, the spent-fuel pools remain a major threat.  A long-term alternative to storing the stuff in pools is to bury it. But nobody wants radioactive waste in their back yard—certainly not the Nevadans upon whom the US government wants to foist this country’s nuclear trash.

Nuclear accidents create widespread fear because their impact travels across geography and time. Radiation from Fukushima is detectable in the United States. The Soviet Union’s Chernobyl catastrophe is expected to cause many more cancer deaths over decades than the immediate fatalities from radiation disease. By contrast, damage from the Titanic was limited to one group of people at one particular time.

All these differences tie into a fundamental characteristic of the nuclear power industry, namely that it could not exist without government backing. The plants are privately owned, but the industry is a creature of ongoing public interventions, whether legal, financial or security-related.  At current prices for energy, nuclear power is not economically viable.

It would be even less viable if it were not protected in various ways. It benefits from special legal liability caps and tax breaks. The Obama administration wanted to give $36 billion in new loan guarantees for the construction of nuclear power plants.

At Fukushima, we’re watching the consequences of extensive government action coupled with unresolved technological problems.  The WSJ reports that the Fukushima disaster plans greatly underestimate the scope of a potential accident yet are consistent with the principles set forth by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The situation that has developed was discounted as so unlikely, no provision was made for it. Nuclear power, of course, is as heavily regulated as they come. A giant regulatory umbrella reassures people—until an awful debacle breaks out.

It is easy to say, as many are saying, that more comprehensive safety plans should be made and greater precautions taken against all possible threats. But there is a reason why this was not done and regulators did not push for it. It would make an already high-cost energy source even more prohibitively expensive. Who is going to pay for all that? Can you feel yet another hand in your taxpayer’s pocket?

At the time the Titanic went down, airplanes were already displacing long-distance sea transport, which disappeared in the following decades. But nowadays there are numerous cruise ships, in effect floating resorts. They haven’t had problems with icebergs and they pay their way. That’s how markets work.  Millions of people take cruises at acceptable prices and levels of safety.

The criterion that applies to all business should be applied to nuclear power generation. If it cannot pay its own way, including the cost of a full panoply of safety measures, legal liabilities and an acceptable method for disposing of used fuel, then it should not exist.

39 thoughts on “Japan Nuclear Crisis vs. the Titanic

  1. “If it cannot pay its own way, including the cost of a full panoply of safety measures, legal liabilities”

    Would you say the same for the Gun Industry? And the arms industry? And the oil industry?
    And the coal industry?

    Would you support abolition of all limits on liability on all business? How about all investors?

  2. I get the objection to liability limits for nuclear power as a subsidy. I’m not so sure that nuclear is not economically viable, even if subsidized.

    At least one factually assertion here is I think incorrect. You state that airplanes were displacing ships when the Titanic sank. While this might have been true within say 20 years of the titanic sinking, I don’t think it was less than a decade after the first powered flight.

  3. The spent-fuel problem is huge, and the Japan nuclear crisis may force a resolution. Utilities with nuclear power plants have been paying a tax to fund storage of spent fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. They and the states in which the plants are located are going to sue the federal government to force the fulfillment of the contract.

    I cannot predict how the suit will turn out. But the need to resolve the spent-fuel problem is independent of the future viability of nuclear power.

    Opposition to Yucca is largely within the political class in Nevada. Popular opposition is a mile-wide and inch-deep. In any case, the issue may be decided in the courts.

  4. “Would you say the same for the Gun Industry?”

    The gun industry is in fact heavily regulated, and if you market an unsafe gun (i.e., one likely to malfunction) then you can be sued to the hilt. If you misuse your gun there are substantial penalties as well, last I heard. But the point about oil, and fossil fuels generally, is well taken. We know that lots of people have died of pollution. The only substantial loss of life in a nuclear power accident was at Chernobyl, an inherently unstable design operated by communists. The Japanese plants, let us recall, were subject to a massive tsunami, caused by a magnitude 9 earthquake that together killed 10,000 people. How many have actually died from the nuclear radiation? What’s the likely total? Is Nevada likely to be hit by a big earthquake? A tsunami? By all means, let’s avoid situating nuke plants on geologic faults and tsunami-prone coasts. Otherwise, all this fretting about nuclear safety is utterly disproportionate to the danger. The feds pushed nuclear prematurely, but it seems to me the present political is stifling the deployment of new technology. As for subsidies, I’m not a fan. Nor am I a fan of unlimited emission of CO2 into the atmosphere, even if anthropic global warming has been hyped.

  5. I am not sure whether either disaster was caused by “acts of nature”. Yes, there was the iceberg for the Titanic and the tsunami and earthquake for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. But in both cases, human factors (design, operation, and response to the events, etc.) made disasters possible and made them worse.
    The Titanic basically ran into a massive iceberg. For example, the ship was traveling too fast in an area with warnings for iceberg. Moreover, later studies showed the ship was constructed with low grade steel plates and rivets, making the ship very brittle and what might have been some dents in warmer climate into major gashes. Investigation into the incident revealed a number of problems, resulting in many improvements for the future ocean going vessels.
    The Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster is ongoing and there is much yet unknown. But even here I suspect human mistakes crucial. For example, the disaster at the plant is fundamentally caused by the failure of cooling the nuclear fuel and the spent-fuel. Overheating resulted in explosions and leakages, and the threat of nuclear meltdown, etc. The fuels at the plants could not be cooled because the backup generators were flooded from the tsunami. (Surely there were defects in placing the backup generators in lower grounds.) But what is not clear to me is why the nuclear power plants were shut down in the first place when the backup generators failed. I know they say the plants are designed to shut down automatically for safety in the event of an earthquake. But that is assuming that the backup generators are working to cool the fuel pools. Couldn’t operators of the plant prevent the auto-shutdown? (As far as I can tell all the major damages to the plants occurred from explosions form overheating, not from earthquake itself.) If the plants were not shut down, there would have been enough electricity to cool the fuel pools by circulating water. Also, the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric company tried to minimize the incidence and step by step escalated the problem.
    Anti-nuclear lobbyists will see the Fukushima disaster as a conclusive proof that the nuclear power is no good. But I am not sure whether that follows. A careful study into the disaster, which may take some time, will reveal a number of avoidable mistakes to improve nuclear power plant design and operations in the future. They may conclude that building nuclear power plants in an earthquake prone region seems too risky.
    Chidam, you say the nuclear power industry cannot exist without government backing. I am not sure what you mean by this. Environmentalists and the anti-nuclear league can raise costs of production for nuclear power plants, with unending demanding for exhaustive proof that they are safe. Excesses of liability suites are not limited to nuclear power industry. Establishing some agreeable and reasonable rules and enforcing them would be proper role of government. Terrorists threatening to do much harm by damaging nuclear power plants also raise the cost, often born by taxpayers. But isn’t the provision of security also proper function of government? One can become paranoid by even thinking about it, but terrorist can wreak a great havoc by tampering with water supplies, microbes in labs, etc. Should shut down all industries that can be exploited by evil doers and potentially cause harm?
    Nuclear power, while many have apprehensions about it and people in earthquake prone areas should reconsider, is relatively inexpensive source of power. Unlike other much touted alternatives such as solar, wind, or ethanol, nuclear power does not require government subsidies.
    Yes, the disposal of spent fuel is a problem to be solved. Some spent fuel can be recycled. Others can be safely stored, not in drums that can leak later, but by baking them into bricks with silicone. (But who knows down the road with development of science some of the nuclear waste could be input for some other useful goods?)

  6. I’m no expert in energy, but have a number of friends and colleagues who are (and who have skin in the game). It is amazing how they divide on long-run energy prices. And, of course, the issue for nuclear is long-run prices, not today’s.

    Currently the development of shale has produced an increase in the supply of natural gas, and depressed its price. It’s hard for nuclear or even coal to compete if that price holds.

    Will gas prices stay low?

    Daniel Yergin makes the optimistic case for gas as an energy source in the Weekend Journal. Others demure. Time will tell.

  7. The oil industry enjoys liability caps somewhat like those of the nuclear industry, but it seems that when an offshore well hiccups, the government DECLARES damage (rather than having it determined in the usual and long-standing legal mechanisms for the purpose) and requires its immediate and total funding from the oil company. Caps like that can rapidly ruin their “beneficiaries.”

    The Titanic also enjoyed much government involvement in its financing, construction, and launching. Much regulation, too, which was found somewhat wanting in the aftermath of the misfortune.

  8. @Allan Walstad “The gun industry is in fact heavily regulated” … yes it is, but what if it wasn’t?

    Chidem Kurdas’s post makes the valid point that the decision of whether there should or should be a nuclear industry could be left to the free market, provided that the industry bore all of the costs.

    Suppose all government intervention in the manufacture, wholesale, sale, resale, purchase, ownership and possession of guns were abolished, INCLUDING all limitations of liability. Then we let the free market decide what controls should be applied. The government doesn’t tell you you must not sell a gun to a nutcase, nor provide any databases or anything for a background check. That’s up to the industry to provide and to pay the consequences if they get it wrong.

    Isn’t that how the free market is supposed to work? But it only works if liability limitations are abolished.

  9. When I mentioned this article to her, my wife pointed out that if the Titanic sunk today, there would be calls to stop shipping. There are too many people today who think government is capable of bestowing eternal life to all it touches. When government becomes god, it is theocracy.

  10. Dave Pullin–Ok. I don’t think we disagree enough to argue about here, then. I MIGHT be a tad more open to government regulation, but the difference would be small by comparison to the general political spectrum.

  11. Dave Pullin–
    Re legal liabilities. I’m all for TORT reform across the board for all business. What we see in nuclear power is a sweetheart deal that is no doubt great for the nuclear power lobby and the politicians who get paid by it, but not the rest of us.

  12. BrucetheEconomist-
    Re factual matter: My memory was that lighter-than-air craft started to cross the Atlantic in the 1910s and the Zeppelin established commercial transatlantic flights in the 1920s. But you’re right, it wasn’t until later that air travel displaced transatlantic ships.

  13. Young Back –
    I don’t deny that specific errors made the problem worse. But there are always errors — Roger Koppl is right that “Avoidable mistakes are unavoidable”. Mistakes happen at all levels, whether plant design, implementation or safety measures.

    Nuclear power is supported by all manner of government subsidies, of which the Obama Administration’s plan for loan guarantees is just one.

  14. This is all none sense… The only reason the titanic was a disastor was because there were not enough life boats on board.

    Nobody would call for and ban on shipping. They would only call a law to ensure that no ship can sail with out enough life boats for everyone on board.

    The real issue is… Is nuclear a clean source of public and industrial energy and the answere is no it is not.

    The Industry promised they would keep radioactive waste out of the environment for half a million years.. In 50 years how many times have they failed?

  15. Yes, the Titanic did not have a sufficient number of life boats, but had it not capsized so fast, other ships would have arrived in time to save more passengers. So it’s not a single deficiency that alone caused the disaster but a combination of problems.

    Reading recent news stories, one gets the sense that the nuclear threat in Japan is also not the result of a single problem.

  16. The Titanic did not capsize… It sank.

    The reason there were not enough life boats was because the shipping company did not want to ruin the look of the ship for its rich first class customers.

    There was no combination of anything but human greed and stupidity which the lower paying ticked holders payed the price for.

    The flooding of the Fukushima’s reactors will boil down to the same problem.

    Any engineer with half a brain would have said build the sea wall three times higher then the worst possible case..

    Any accountant on the project would have said “That will cost to much money!!!!”

    So now they have six reactors with no power because the building they were in got flooded. It doesn’t take rocket science to see why that happened.

  17. All of us live every day with hazards. Generally we have no perfect assurance against these hazards. Yet somehow we live. Do not overlook Julian Simon’s ultimate resource.

    ” … nobody wants radioactive waste in their back yard …”

    To this I have long replied: Put it in my back yard!

    I am an engineer with an education and I stake my life on this. I will live on top of a pile of the nastiest waste you can imagine provided:

    1. I have (or my agent has) control over management of the waste-storage practices;
    2. I am paid a mutually agreeable compensation;
    3. I am assured the waste will be removed if condition (1) or (2) fails.

    But of course my provisions cannot be satisfied in a realm of democratically adjustable law.

  18. Nobody wants nuclear waste in their back yard is a myth.

    The real reason that nuclear waste is not buried is nobody has come up with a good place to put it. So we keep it close to surface where we can monitor the stuff to make sure its not leaking.

    Finding a host environment to store something so deadly for half a million years is no easy task. If you are an engineer you should know that…

    A good engineer would also know the difference between risk and acceptable risk.

    So far we have had one nuclear plant involved in a major catastrophic natural event. If you have a look at the photos of the containment buildings at Fukushima you can see how well we are doing so far. Keep in mind we are only 50 years into the game!

    It is not just you that has to live with this stuff under your feet… Its your children for generations to come.

  19. Joe,

    Once I took a course titled “Environmental, Economic, and Regulatory aspects of Nuclear Power”. This was a graduate level course offered by the Nuclear Engineering Dept. at Carnegie-Mellon Univ.

    I am sorry that I do not feel I have time, or think this is the place, for me to repeat what I learned in that course. But I am sure that such material is available to you should you seek it.

  20. Thanks Richard, I graduated in Geology from the University of Waterloo. Where they are doing extensive research into the problem of disposal of Radioactive waste.

    Short term containment of nuclear waste is the realm of engineering. Safe “long term disposal” requires sound knowledge of geological processes.

    If you are interested here is a paper on the subject.


  21. Richard Hammer-
    Re “I am paid a mutually agreeable compensation;” for nuclear waste in your backyard. OK, if you want to look at it that way, I would be willing, too, for the right amount of money–$10 billion might do it, I suppose. And I doubt that I’d be unique in demanding a high level of compensation.

    The real price being high, various governmental impositions come to play. To try to make nuclear reactors viable, even potential compensation has to be kept low, for instance with liability caps–as the original post points out. Therefore no state wants the stuff and the plan for Nevada faces resistance.

    You could offer each Nevadan $10 Billion and see if they accept the deal. But energy users won’t pay a high enough price for that kind of compensation when there are cheaper options.

  22. Joe-
    “Any engineer with half a brain would have said build the sea wall three times higher then the worst possible case..
    Any accountant on the project would have said “That will cost to much money!!!!” ”
    Well yes, the accountant would have had a good point. One that points to project being nonviable.

  23. Chidem,

    The compenstaion has already been paid in the form of fees charged utilities with nuclear power plants. There is a hollowed-out mountain — Yucca — awaiting shipments of spent fuel. And there are many Nevadans who would like to be paid to take it.

    There is a private site in Texas that already accepts the spent fuel. Other groups and states are in the running.

  24. Even if the long term waste disposal problem is ignored. Which has been the nuclear industries Strategy from day one.

    The long term plan has always been “We don’t really have one one but hey in 40 or 50 years we should be able to think of something”

    Put that aside and look at the hot radioactive waste. The spent fuel that has just been removed from a reactor.

    Reactor 4 at Fukushima was not even running more then likely all the fuel had been removed and was sitting “Hot” in the spent fuel pond.

    They lost water in the pool and the hot fuel starts to burn through the casing and a the hydrogen produced blows away the containment building.

    So here we have tonnes of hot fuel sitting wide open. No containment. Fortunately In this case they managed to get enough water to stop a complete meltdown and burn off.

    I may not be an engineer but i can see that the handling of spent fuel like that is just a disaster waiting to happen.

    Tonnes of hot fuel sitting in pool of water that simply has to boil off to expose it. who in their right mind decided that was a safe way to do things?

    Why bother building redundant containment for the reactors if your just going to leave the spent fuel laying around in pool of water?

    These are questions that the public should be asking. And these are the things that the public never finds out till you have a Fukushima.

  25. Re Yucca: From the fact that Harry Reid has opposed the Yucca Mountain plan for years and has got elected I would infer that his Nevada constituents don’t think much of the plan and back his opposition to it.

  26. I apologize for being slow and brief in responding. I am a college student again and have not yet finished my homework due tomorrow. I elaborate on my two previous comments.

    Pertaining to both generation of nuclear power and disposal of wastes generated by nuclear power, I believe the main barriers to safety are institutional and political — not technological. In each case it is easy for an educated technologist to analyze the hazards; to envision management, division, and dilution of the hazards down to a degree of danger which humans show they are willing to tolerate in their everyday decisions. But the technologically feasible approaches are not politically feasible, by and large.

    My offer to live on top of a pile of nasty waste included three provisions. These provisions would not be enforceable to my satisfaction in any system of law now operated by any government on Earth, to my knowledge. But that does not undermine my point, except to political pragmatists. That is my point.

    If I were made Emperor of the World, one of my first decrees would eliminate limited liability for corporations. But that is just a tiny part of the mess which the state has made of law.

  27. “eliminate limited liability for corporations. ”

    Do you realize that you have to eliminate limited liability of shareholders, otherwise just removing corporate limited liability is meaningless?

    Limited Liability is a massive government intervention and distortion of the market.

    … so why aren’t the free marketeers and Libertarians that inhabit this forum cheering you??

  28. “… so why aren’t the free marketeers and Libertarians that inhabit this forum cheering you??”

    I have the impression that many people who answer the call of “libertarian” are motivated principally to escape the rules of present society, and are not interested in examining the new structure of rules which I believe must grow to support a prospering, voluntary, civil society.

  29. Richard O. Hammer – I find it useful to distinguish between “libertarian” such as Thomas Jefferson, and “Libertarian” such the the party. The former recognized an inherent contention between the freedom of one individual and the freedom of another, and therefore a role for group action, in the form of government, to protect the rights of individuals. For example my freedom to smoke wherever I want is in contention with your freedom to breath clean air wherever you want. Government has a role to resolve the contention by defining where I cannot smoke and where you cannot breath clean air.

    It seems Libertarians want freedom to do anything they want regardless of the consequences on anyone else. Sometimes they argue that the contention should be resolved by tort law. “I should be free to drive drunk; if I kill you, you can sue me.”. They argue against any form of government coercion (such as preventing me from driving drunk).

    Limited Liability in any form destroys the notion that irresponsible exercise of freedom can be resolved by tort law. It is also a major distortion of the free market. It socializes risk and coerces your costs on to other people. And it derives entirely from government intervention.

    It is, as you say, a means of escaping the rules of society, by escaping responsibility for your actions.

    The silence of “free marketeers” and “Libertarians” on this issue is deafening!

  30. have the impression that many people who answer the call of “libertarian” are motivated principally to escape the rules of present society, and are not interested in examining the new structure of rules which I believe must grow to support a prospering, voluntary, civil society.

    While I have libertarian sympathies, I am not a libertarian. However, this phrase “the new structure of rules which I believe must grow to support a prospering, voluntary, civil society” would not arouse disinterest, it arouses contempt. The history of the world is fully of would be despots, such as yourself, who are convinced of the necessity and rectitute of their new rules.

  31. The ultimate goal I guess is to use a thorium reactor (or other type of reactor) to ‘burn’ the existing waste fuel. As to nuke waste sitting in pools of water, it seems a huge waste of potential energy, perhaps these plants need some thermoelectric generators to use this waste heat to generate additional power?

    The subsidy question is an interesting one when subsidies are operating on so many different levels. For example a large one for the oil/coal industries is all the ash/heavy and radioactive material that is released in the combustion process. But that is an often not discussed externality, whereas any radiation released from a nuclear plant is.

  32. Private sector ownership did not help British Petrolium with its own disaster last year. A fully private one. And by the way, have consequencies been already resolved?

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