Periscope Depth

sitting here in my safe european home

A few reminders:

1. There is no non-fictional source of power that will allow a First World country to operate at its current rate of industry that will survive an 8.9 quake without venting pollution. None.*

(Right, right; solar and wind power can keep the entire planet not only stable but growing, just as soon as this one infrastructural barrier is overcome. Any day now. That magic bullet’s the next one in the mag, I promise. But in the meantime …)

So your choice is to either adopt sub-Saharan levels of consumption or to live with the risks. And the risks still seem to favor nukes. I can’t imagine the worst quake that Japan has ever recorded would treat a network of offshore oil rigs any better than it did the Daiichi reactor.

2. That said, the damage is always worse than you hear.

You can count on a government agency to paint a crisis as rosier than it is. It is always worse than they tell you. This isn’t cynicism; it’s observed empirical fact. You can always make money by betting that a federal project will run over budget and over schedule, that a war will cost more than predicted, and that a recession is not over when they say it is. This is the smartest bet on the table. Pros make a living on this bet; they’re called “government contractors.”

And not only does the verdict of history bear this out, but it makes good theoretical sense too. What incentive does an employee of a democracy have to be the bearer of bad news? He’s either an elected official, in which case keeping his job depends on reassuring voters, or he’s an appointed official, in which case keeping his job hinges on giving elected officials good news, or he’s a career bureaucrat, in which case he doesn’t care.

I’m not saying that everyone’s lying. I’m saying everyone’s guessing. That’s what the institution encourages. And an institution is not ten people conspiring to do evil; it’s ten thousand people with no incentive to do good.

So when a Tokyo Electric Power Company official says that “preparatory work [on laying a power cable to restore the reactors] has so far not progressed as fast as we had hoped,” I take that to mean everything’s fucked. No one in a position to speak to the public would use a sentence like that if there were the slightest hope. I could certainly be wrong. Maybe the situation’s under control. Maybe the wheel will come up 00 this time.

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* If we stretch the definition of “First World” to include Iceland, a country which is actually powered by tectonic instability, then I suppose we have one exception. But the fact that almost nobody lives in Iceland helps my argument more than hurts it.