The Nuclear State

It’s been six years since the nuclear accident at Fukushima, Japan. Due to bad design and an earthquake, that plant now dumps 300 tons of hyper-radioactive water into the ocean every day. If you saw this with the naked eye you would die of radiation poisoning. Once again, this event points out the deadly nature of this technology. But it has a more insidious trait; it demands a dominant government.

Like government, the nuclear fire is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. Most nuclear plants produce dangerous wastes that have to be specially protected, many for thousands of years. As carefully built as they are, some plants malfunction.   When they do, millions can die and vast tracks of land can become uninhabitable. Their operators are an indispensable caste of experts who need social stability and tons of money to do what they do. Despite their expertise, these people are only human. If Captain Kirk had nothing to do but take care of a nuclear power plant, you can bet he would still screw up somewhere over his lifetime, as the experts at Fukushima, Three Mile Island, St. Lucie, Hanford Repository, lost nuclear submarines, lost nuclear bombs, and Chernobyl demonstrate. It also doesn’t help that these plants are attractive targets for homicidal maniacs, that they provide fuel for nuclear weapons, or that they may be in the path of the Yellowstone Super Volcano. The very nature of these problems are beyond the power of individuals, or even local government, to handle.

The fact is there is now an ever-lasting need for a new type of permanent, top-down, government control in the world. Unlike a steel or chemical plant, you just can’t abandon a nuclear reactor in tough times.   If government were ever slashed to the bone, if welfare were eliminated, if wars were ended, there would still be a compelling need for strict government control of nuclear power. Private firms just can’t do it. They may be able to manage some aspects of it, but only with the external resources and guarantees of coercive government. If things start getting unprofitable or unsafe, a private firm’s incentive is to leave. That simply cannot happen anymore. If a Mad Max world arrived, you can bet your bottom dollar that the local warlord would provide steaks for the technicians, security for the plant perimeter, and force all the potato eating population to give up their wealth to keep the nuclear plant from melting down. Today there are 61 nuclear power plants in the USA producing 20% of our energy needs.   Worldwide, there are 449 such plants plus thousands of support facilities. Government isn’t just married to nuclear power, it’s become part of our civic DNA. The nuclear state is here to stay, forever, simply because of the terrible consequences of leaving things alone.

That bothers me.   Government should be there to assure rights, justice and defense, but to utterly depend upon it to safely manage this technology for millennia ignores the fallibility of all things human. When it fails, it is going to fail big. The Soviets thought they were going to be a continuous, dominant government forever. When the Soviet Union melted down countries around the world provided money, technicians, and security to keep Soviet plants and weapons safe while their citizens fought for food in the streets. Will self-interested, good Samaritans always be there? I wouldn’t bet on it. Will people, in general, be willing to voluntarily make the never-ending sacrifices in wealth and liberty necessary to keep this technology controlled? I wouldn’t bet on that either. What happens then?

Have no doubt, nuclear power brings benefits. Cheap electricity made the lives of countless millions better. Pursuing this technology made breakthroughs in areas such as medicine, management, communications (the internet was invented to keep in touch with nuclear silos), and engineering in general. This is all good, but I would ask, are all the physical risks and costs worth it? Maybe it’s better to let it go.

I would also ask, was it worth the cost in liberty?

Pete Blome is a retired military officer and chair of the Northwest Florida Libertarian Party

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