Knee jerking over buses and nuclear power plants


Emergency personnel investigate the scene of a bus

Photo credit: AP | Emergency personnel investigate the scene of a bus crash on Interstate-95 in the Bronx Saturday. (March 12, 2011)

Two separate events (actually one was a series of events that is still ongoing) that happened over the weekend have captured the media’s attention and in many cases pushing some other significant stories out of the public’s view.  The Middle East did not take the weekend off to watch life coverage of the tragedy in Japan – instead some very important things happened, mostly without much notice by the rest of the world.  The Libyan forces of Muammar Gaddafi are continuing to recapture places held by the rebels, apparently with ease; the international community is still talking about intervention and no-fly zones and the British prime minister has said his government will support military intervention, although there were no specifics.  Further east Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (one media outlet called the forces from UAE police) have sent troops into Bahrain to support that government- it would seem pro-government forces spent less time talking – the action sends a couple of messages; one message is to the citizens of Saudi Arabia and the other is to the western governments, Saudi Arabia will defend itself and not hestitate to use troops against demonstrators – I suppose that is really one message in two contexts.

But as everyone knows, the real story is Japan; the story-line is moving from earthquakes and tsunamis to nuclear meltdowns, but has not lessened in scope or seriousness.  From around the world, there a great deal of anxiety over the safety of people in Japan – but also for the citizens of other countries; every country with nuclear power plants is doing assessments and rethinking the future of nuclear power.  Germany is contemplating closing two plants immediately and der Spiegel is calling this the end of the nuclear era – pretty fast decisions based on limited information I would say.

The other story grabbing headlines comes from the United States and involves a bus taking gamblers from China Town in New York City to Connecticut casinos.  The bus crashed just inside of New York City on its return trip killing 15 people.  The driver blamed a phantom tractor-trailer, but not many are buying his story.  The reactions to the crash have been varied and interesting.  At least four of the people in the accident got back on another bus and went back to the casinos.  The police in New York are investigating the accident, interviewing witnesses, watching videos and checking the bus’ “black box” to determine the speed of the bus on impact.  And in Connecticut there are already calls for better legislation and regulation at both the state and national level.  Again, it is a very quick decision – what one might call a knee jerk reaction.  I don’t know anything about nuclear power, not its science, economics or regulation, but I do know something about casinos, busing and regulation in general.

Lawmakers and regulators always think more laws and regulation is the answer to every question – often it is not; in fact frequently the kind of  knee jerk legislation that comes out of any catastrophe creates more problems than it solves.  The legislators (and regulators) in their hurry to prove their worth rush to judgment without taking time to understand all of the facts and factors in the case, and less to asses the consequences of any proposed new laws and regulations.  Our political system maybe partly at fault, every law proposed is framed in terms of party politics and that leads to party-line battles.  Under those circumstances politicians simply defend the party position, no one has the time or inclination to do the due diligence or to think through the problem in depth.  In the case of the bus company for example, two people have suffered minor injuries in the last two years – that makes this accident an anomaly and not part of a sinister pattern – likely to be the result of one man’s (the driver’s) behavior and no amount of regulation will cause every driver to always be alert and to make the correct decision in every case.  Even in Japan, a country with a history of more earthquakes and tsunamis than any other country in the world, the problems with nuclear plants is without precedent.  And that means the nuclear crisis is unique and unless someone finds a way to prevent natural disasters by regulation it is not preventable by regulation.

Of course we cannot put the two events into the same context and use the same argument and logic on both; if everyone on the bus in New York had been killed it would have been less than 50 people.  In Japan the worse case scenario for the earthquake, the tsunami or the nuclear plant explosions, singly or combined, could have been in the millions of people.  That makes the consequences of building and regulating nuclear plants much more significant – in fact at the moment nuclear power plants may have the most potential to cause death of any human activity outside of the obvious one,  war and nuclear war in particular.  Still, it behooves politicians to pause for a moment and not like Angela Merkel make long term decisions on the spur of the moment or the jerk of the knee.

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