Saturday, March 19, 2011

Energy & Frankenstein

This is a very brief but thoughtful essay on the perils of our energy regime. Last summer we had the Gulf oil spill and now we have the Japanese nuclear disaster. Are we digging our selves a hole that we can't dig out of, or at least that will trap us--in terms of health and wealth--for decades? The Frankenstein myth should still hold some resonance for us. Again, I have to point to Thomas Homer-Dixon and his The Ingenuity Gap as a prophet about these issues. Of course, let me be clear: I'm not a Luddite. I really, really enjoy my electronics. Life would be much poorer with electricity. However, we'd better think of some very good answers to our energy future or we're in for more and more problems.

On the other hand, Frank Robinson at the Rational Optimist points out that nothing is risk free, that we've not had very many deaths from nuclear power, and that we need nuclear power if we're going to reduce carbon emissions. All very valid points. Here's the question that is not answered: can the nuclear industry operate under tort standards of conduct? Should nuclear power adhere to strict liability standards (I say "yes", and I think that may be the current law). If the industry can't live with that standard; if they can't provide that degree of protection; if that can't pay the level of damages that they might cause, then should we use this source of energy? How much in damages might we be talking about? I don't know, but how much did BP pay for its Gulf clean-up? Tough issues.

1 comment:

frank S. Robinson said...

Thanks. My legal career was far removed from tort law. But it's the essence of tort law that injury is compensated when there is fault, e.g., negligence. Pure accidents or "acts of God" do not qualify. "Strict liability" however would apply where an activity is so inherently dangerous that injury is reasonably foreseeable. I do not believe this would or should apply to nuclear power plants, assuming they are built and operated in compliance with the very thorough regulations in force. Thus, in the case of a Japan-like disaster, which was basically beyond anyone's control, the utility should not be liable for injury unless it could be shown that it was culpable in some way (for example, negligence in dealing with the problem).
A utility in such a situation might still feel a moral responsibility to compensate injured persons.
In any case, given the rarity of such episodes, in the context of hundreds of plants operating safely for decades, and the huge revenues of the utilities operating them, the potential liability associated with such an episode should not be a material factor in the overall economics of nuclear energy. I would note that even BP was able to absorb the massive cost of the Gulf spill without wrecking its financial viability. (But, I daresay, the irrational over-exaggeration of the risks of nuclear energy do infect even Wall Street evaluations.)