Saturday, June 5, 2010

Disasters Я Us

Imagine a factory where employees are required to work six days a week under sweatshop conditions. Add to this the fact that the doors of the factory are locked so that people can not leave, even to get a breath of fresh air. Then, imagine there is a fire and 146 employees are suddenly dead. Does this sound like something that would happen in a place like Bangladesh or Myanmar? Wrong – it happened in New York City - almost 100 years ago at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. Why? Because there were few if any workplace safety regulations, and like today, the owners of the factory escaped any criminal convictions for their role in these murders.

Also in the first half of the 20th century, asbestos was widely used in building construction due to its heat-resistant properties. Yet, its toxicity was well known even then. The president of one of the largest asbestos manufacturers was reported to have remarked that it was fine for workers to be exposed to toxic material because “we make a lot of money that way.” Some workers sued, settlements were made out of court, and the largest producer of the poisonous substance, Johns Manville, eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. No one was criminally convicted for allowing workers to die for the sake of profits. Even today, tons of asbestos dispersed in the air from the World Trade Center collapse continue to affect workers and rescue personnel.

This track record of corporations' disdain for environmental and safety issues continues with the BP disaster. The pre-explosion warnings about inadequate contingency planning are all over the news media. Survivors of the original explosion were held at sea, unable to be reunited with their loved ones, until they signed waivers of liability. The full story is yet to be told, but it seems clear that the genesis of this disaster occurred shortly after the inauguration of George W. Bush when Vice President Dick Cheney held secret meetings with oil company executives to gut the regulatory process that protected workers and the environment. Even today, the list of participants in that fateful meeting is a closely held secret.

Fast forward twenty years from now when the first of a series of brand new nuclear power plants opens after its construction is late and over budget. Like at the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979, due to lax oversight, operational procedures were not followed. But unlike TMI, which suffered only a partial meltdown, this new accident results in a complete meltdown of the reactor core. As with the Chernobyl reactor, there was an explosion. It was only partially mitigated by safety containment domes. Several square miles adjacent to the plant are now permanently uninhabitable, and the cleanup eventually costs billions of dollars – all in the name of “cheap” energy. Implausible? Not quite. Especially considering corporations' past track record of assuring the public that everything is safe, and the same corporations' complicity with government regulators.

There are other aspects of “cheap” nuclear energy that don't get much coverage in the corporate mainstream media. The problem with safe storage and disposal of nuclear waste is well known, but often left out of the debate. It should also be noted that we have not built a new nuclear plant in the United States in several decades, and while the science and engineering is well-documented, the pool of experiential knowledge from the first generation of reactor builders is rapidly diminishing. And the fuel source, uranium, is imported from foreign countries – some currently friendly and others not so.

Regardless of the industry, the pattern here is clear. Big corporations put profits ahead of people. When a disaster happens, no one is held criminally responsible and regulations, no matter how weak or strong, are put into place only after the fact.

Eliminating our dependency on foreign oil is not enough. We need to rapidly develop effective and inexpensive ways to satisfy our energy needs with renewable and clean energy like wind, solar, and tidal. President Obama should inspire us with an Apollo-like program to achieve this goal within ten years and provide the research and development funding to do so. This funding should come from increased taxes on fossil and nuclear energy as well as from fines on polluters and environmental wrongdoers. Incentives should be provided to encourage students to pursue studies in environmental and renewable energy fields. Such bold goals are the only way we will effect the dramatic change necessary to save the planet from even more apocalyptic disasters while at the same time boosting our economy with these new initiatives.

1 comment:

  1. I think people way underestimate the challenge of lowering greenhouse-gas emissions to allowable levels. James Hansen says we have to lower atmospheric CO2 concentration from about 390 ppm to 350, compared with levels of 290 ppm or less that prevailed for hundreds of thousands of years. To achieve that means lowering emissions by over 80% world-wide, which means at least 90% for big emitters.

    At this point we are not in a position to pick and choose between solutions. There aren't any solutions we can leave out. And the notion that we can depend on intermittent, unpredictable energy sources needs much more scrutiny.