Enticed by long-odds Fukushima gamble


Economic and scientific elites are prey to delusions that the unlikely will not happen. The rest of us pick up the pieces when it does, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE

THERE IS a reason why the ancient Greek tragedies from 2,500 years ago are performed so regularly now. Their basic story is that of hubris and nemesis, of what happens to a man who steps over the bounds of what is proper. The universe restores its balance by destroying him.

The word hubris has its roots in another word that characterises our times: hyper. In a culture like ours which has managed to make “hyper” a term of approbation, the Greek warning that there are boundaries we should not cross has never been more necessary.

As Fukushima demonstrates, a nuclear power station is a concrete testament to hubris. The engineers who design nuclear plants know very well that the consequences of a system failure may be catastrophic. They also know they are creating waste which will remain toxic for 100,000 years – a horizon of time far beyond the imaginative capacity of the human mind. However, they keep this knowledge at bay.

They believe that the possible consequences are irrelevant because the system will not fail. And they see the question of what happens to the waste in the distant future as one that is incapable of being answered and therefore one that need not be addressed.

Those who understand mathematics like to point out that the rest of us tend to underestimate the likelihood of extremely rare events. Con men and charlatans play on our belief that coincidences are uncanny and therefore defy rational explanation.

In fact, with six billion people on the planet, the chances of you falling in love with someone born on the same day as yourself are quite high.

Irish people dream for about eight million hours every night. Therefore the chances that some of those dreams will coincide with subsequent real events are extremely high. The chance of six specific Irish horses winning at Cheltenham on the same day last week was 1.5 million to one. But it happened.

With extremely rare events, there is an obvious limit to the power of rational calculation. Being extremely rare, they don’t happen often enough for us to be able to work out the patterns of their occurrence.

Yet when it comes to systems designed by mathematically literate people themselves, this wisdom goes out the window. Highly unlikely events are treated as if they are, in effect, impossible.

Relatively probable events are factored in, extremely unlikely events are not. In the case of Japan’s nuclear power plants, for example, the design took account, separately, of the possibility of a powerful earthquake and of a tsunami.

It did not take account of the possibility of an earthquake beyond what had ever been experienced before being combined with a tsunami. Nor did it assume that the safety systems would be destroyed by the same forces that caused the problem. This, of course, is what actually happened: the tsunami knocked out the back-up generators for the cooling system.

This kind of thinking isn’t applied only to nuclear power. We’ve had a very clear example of it in Ireland in recent years. Shell acknowledged that the consequences of an explosion in its Corrib gas pipeline would be catastrophic for those living beside it, but then claimed that since the chances of it happening were so low, this did not really matter.

Even when An Bord Pleanála eventually challenged this logic, Shell and many engineers continued to argue that it was simply wrong – the assessment of risk should have been based, not on the consequences of an accident, but on the chances that it might happen.

But this way of thinking goes well beyond the field of physical engineering. It became, over the last 20 years, a political and economic ideology. “The market” and global finance were imagined as perfect self-regulating systems in which the possibility of catastrophes like the Wall Street crash was so low that it could be discounted altogether.

This way of thinking is peculiar to economic and scientific elites, who are prey to utopian delusions.

The rest of humanity tends, from the bitter experience of countless generations, to believe in Sod’s law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” We may add the extensions of Murphy’s law: “If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that goes wrong will be the one that can cause most damage. If you perceive that there are four possible ways in which something can go wrong, and circumvent these, then a fifth way, unprepared for, will promptly develop.”

The grim humour of Sod’s law is based on fatalism, but also on humility. It is not so far from the Greek idea of hubris and nemesis – the notion that human ingenuity and energy have limits beyond which they must not presume to go. The illusion that we can, and therefore should, control everything is shaped by greed and megalomania.

The tragedy is that people have to pay a terrible price for the reminder that we are a limited species with a great deal to be modest about.

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