- The Washington Times - Monday, March 14, 2011



If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, you probably aren’t suited for a career in politics and certainly not in the media. Joining the stampede of panic in the wake of disaster is much more likely to put you in front of a camera.

Some of our politicians who know better are limbering up to lead the stampede away from nuclear power in reaction to the once-in-a-millennium earthquake followed by tsunami in Japan. Logically, next up should be a shutdown of trains and ships, since several of those were lost in the storm, too.

Expecting the runaway media to put away hysteria is as futile as expecting dogs to quit chasing cars, so there’s the usual rush to wrong-headed judgment. The media’s longed-for worst-case scenario continues to elude the Japanese government, busy with evacuations and trying to bring overheated fuel rods under control. The worst elements of the media are left with only speculation about what could happen. This is a lot more fun than setting off a run on bread and toilet paper on the eve of a snowfall. The damage in Japan so far, though epic, has been limited and contained to the nuclear plants. “In simple human terms,” observes the Wall Street Journal, “the natural destruction of earth and sea have far surpassed any errors committed by man.”

Such limitations on the power of man are hard for modern man to accept. Modern man is unable to rip a gash in the floor of the sea stretching 186 miles long and 93 miles wide, and this makes modern man green, or at least pink, with envy. But he continues to think that all risks in life can be eliminated, all rough places made smooth, all seas soothed and all skies gentled. We might have to die eventually, but if we try hard enough, get enough exercise and watch our calories, we might get an extra 11 minutes in a coma at the end of life, with tubes and extension cords protruding from every orifice (and then some).

Or we could grow up. Modern civilization is risky business, a constant exercise of weighing risk against reward. Civilizing the risk is the price of reward. We can take useful lessons from the tragedy in Japan, but the notion that we can eliminate risk is a lethal illusion.

Pursuit of illusion is already growing apace in Europe, and particularly in Germany, where the splintered atom supplies a considerable portion of the nation’s electric power. The radical Greens are salivating at the prospect of further disaster in Japan, and how it would pump up their ability to frighten the public into a return to Luddite misery.

Angela Merkel’s government, which won approval of an extension of the life spans of 17 German nuclear-power plants, faces another test March 27 in regional elections in the state of Baden-Wurrtemberg, site of a nuclear-power plant. Forty-thousand demonstrators are expected to fume and froth at a rally this week in Stuttgart. “The nuclear crisis in Japan will politicize the election,” Claudia Roth, leader of the Greens, says gleefully. Another Greens leader concedes that “this is no time for self-righteousness,” and revels in noisy piety, anyway.

Here at home, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, intends to use a scheduled hearing on nuclear energy to inquire into the earthquake damage to the Japanese reactors. Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a Democrat eager not to let the crisis go to waste, says the Japanese earthquake exposes the fragility of nuclear-power plants and the “potential” consequences of an earthquake catastrophe. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, usually a man with a cool head, nevertheless tells a television interviewer that he wants a moratorium on further expansion of nuclear power.

Opponents of nuclear power have a new catastrophe to work with, but their arguments still come down to coulda, shoulda, woulda. “Could this happen in the United States?” asks Joe Cirincione, president of something called the Ploughshares Fund, which lobbies against everything nuclear. He cites a nuclear-power plant in Diablo Canyon in California as a classic something to worry about. “A large earthquake could knock that reactor out. You could see a core meltdown scenario at that reactor as well.”

Yes, you could. And a falling meteor could make it still worse. If a really big earthquake spills half of California into the sea it could make things really, really bad. So could a tsunami that takes out Las Vegas. But taking counsel with your fear is always a fool’s game.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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