Circumventing Consent: Nuclear Risk and Self-Deception

15 May 2011


Prior to the Fukushima nuclear accident following the Sendai earthquake and tsunami, there was a lot of talk about the renaissance in the nuclear power industry. Political momentum seemed to be growing to prioritize nuclear power generation in the advanced industrialized economies, and even after the Fukushima accident I have seen opinion pieces in major media outlets essentially urging the public not to rush to judgment on nuclear power just because there’s been another accident.

Every once in a while, someone rudely points out that the only reason that the nuclear power industry exists in the US today is because of the Price–Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act, as a recent letter to the Financial Times noted. The US government saw clearly in 1957 that commercial nuclear power generation would not happen if that industry had to obey the rules that other segments of the power generation industry have to obey, so the liability of nuclear power generation was limited by legislative fiat. This continues to be true. The Price–Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act has been repeatedly renewed in order to keep the nuclear power generation industry in business.

I find this particularly fascinating in view of the currently fashionable rhetoric (at all levels of our society, but especially in industry) of “risk management,” which tries to position the particular risks that our society takes as a purely rational calculation with which no reasonably person can disagree. I wrote about this previously in Risk Management: A Personal View. There I attempted to point out that different people have different conceptions of risk, and that there is no rational consensus on what constitutes risk. Both individuals and societies take risks, and these risks reflect their conception of the nature of the world. There is no objective and impartial reason calling the shots from behind the scenes.

Even deeper than the fundamental social conventions of our society that become embedded and (to borrow a Husserlian term) sedimented in the individual’s psychology, there lies a deeper substrate of metaphysical conventions. If you find yourself in agreement with the fundamental metaphysical assumptions of your age, then your philosophical views about the nature of the world will correspond to these metaphysical assumptions that guide both individuals and societies. If you do not find yourself in agreement with the metaphysical assumptions of your age, then you are a metaphysical minority and you will find yourself clashing with the status quo. I belong to a metaphysical minority when it comes to risk. I do not share the prevalent conception of risk that is pervasively invoked in both personal attitudes and legislative dictates. This is what I attempted to explain in my Risk Management: A Personal View, though I had not yet at that time formulated the idea of what it means to be a metaphysical minority.

I am not suggesting the the metaphysical majority is responsible for the irrational management of subsidies to the nuclear power industry, but the metaphysical majority does allow this to happen. Ultimately, it is the privileged few who have their hands on the levers of power (who may themselves constitute a metaphysical minority), and who presume to know what is good for the masses, who are responsible for the special metaphysical status of nuclear power. Like many features of our socio-economic structure, this has been manipulated into place by a powerful minority that an apathetic majority lacks the will to hold to account.

How and why such manipulation successfully comes about is a large and difficult topic. For the moment I will simply observe that it involves the communal equivalent of self-deception, which I will call social deception. What is self-deception? We may roughly define self-deception as a decision not to live in truth, and we can therefore define social deception as a convention not to live in truth. The phrase “live in truth” is due to Václav Havel, who sought a way to express the need for truth in the midst of a mendaciously constructed society. I previously wrote about this in Living and Dying in Truth.

In short, we pretend that we are making a rational choice about our power generation, rather than that institutional structure of that industry following from social inertia, and we pretend that a cost/benefit analysis has guided us to making a social choice to follow a certain public policy, whereas in fact it is simply an expression of the metaphysics of our age. And we do this pretending in sufficiently large numbers that the doubts of those innocent of metaphysics are allayed and the protests of metaphysical minorities are marginalized and therefore safely ignored.

One cannot say that the exemption from industry standard risk management and liability for the nuclear power generation industry was a matter of engineering consent, although this calls to mind all of the worst kind of muck-raking criticisms of regulatory capture and old-boy-network cronyism. Since the consent and the confidence of the public has never been engineered, and has never been won fair and square, one can at most speak of the circumvention of consent. The public remains suspicious of nuclear power generation, and spectacular nuclear accidents only make the industry more marginal in the public mind. But putative democracies have not allowed this popular opposition to sideline nuclear power.

If it were not for the risk exemption granted to the nuclear power generation industry, no insurer would touch the industry, or they would not do so expect at a prohibitively high cost which would as effectively shut down the industry as if no insurance company would cover the industry at any cost. Such gratuitously irrational risk management practices distort the entire industry, and the ripples of these distortions shape (or, rather, misshape) the entire economy. The most obvious example is the marginalization of alternative and sustainable methods of power generation. Alternative sources of energy are said to be too expensive, but their expense is being compared to the expense of nuclear power being maintained at a artificially low level through legislative fiat. Take away the subsidy to the nuclear industry since 1957, and imagine how the industry would have been shaped by market forces over the past half century.

Why does the privileged minority believe so strongly in nuclear power that they exempt the industry from paying the true costs of its operation? I believe that this is at least in part because nuclear power (as odd as this may sound) conforms to a certain institutional model. That institutional model is hierarchical and centralized. In other words, the power generation industry, with its enormous centralized generating stations that distribute electricity outward to a periphery recapitulates the structure of the bureaucratic nation-state.

The power elites who find themselves in charge of the apparatus of the nation-state are, by the very nature of their position, existentially invested in this model, and it would inhuman to expect them to be able to easily make the conceptual transition to other models of organization. The handful of people who run the advanced industrialized economies of the world understand one form of organization, and virtually anything else is incomprehensible to them. Thus universal utilities like electricity are constructed as a microcosm of the nation-state. Or, rather, this construction is facilitated by granting special privileges to those who do things in the approved way, while withholding these special privileges from those who do things in other ways (which latter will tend to be metaphysical minorities).

The mass generation of electricity from alternative sources sufficient to supply the needs of mass society cannot be accomplished efficiently according to the hierarchical and centralized model of nuclear power generation. For those for whom any other structure is strictly incomprehensible, it follows that alternative sources of power cannot work. But those of us in the metaphysical minority, who are not existentially invested in a hierarchical and centralized model of industry, do not wear the same blinkers and are therefore able to see that alternative sources of electricity can be effective, sufficient, and efficient, but that it requires a non-hierarchical, non-centralized model of industry to make this happen. And since a particular model of industry is tied to a particular financial structure, capital and resources are not made available to perfectly good but unfamiliar ideas (or, rather, they are preferentially made available to established ideas). While we can see the first glimmerings of alternative models, it will probably take centuries for a complete transition from power generation based on the territorial principle in law to cede its place to any alternative.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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