Monday, July 14, 2014

Costa Concordia vs. Fukushima Daiichi

The Costa Concordia is floating again. It is, as far as I know, the largest marine salvage operation ever attempted. If all goes well, within another year the cruise ship will be at the scrapyard being taken apart. At NPR:

Meanwhile, The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station sits in essentially the same state it was in the day it was shut down by the weight of a tsunami 3 years ago. There is no credible plan in place for cleaning up the reactors or the fallout-damaged city and countryside. Workers, discouraged as much by the lack of progress as by the 20 percent pay cuts and the company’s dim future, are quitting in large numbers. The AP story at CNBC:

Why such different results in the cleanup of these two disasters? It is certainly not that the cruise ship presents a more urgent threat to its surroundings than the nuclear power station, or that there is more at stake financially. Nor is it that righting a cruise ship is technically easy.

There are a lot of differences you could point to, but my hunch is that the pay cuts at Tepco, the operator of Fukushima Daiichi, point to the difference that matters. Elsewhere we have seen stories about Tepco contractors hiring homeless people to do essential parts of the nuclear cleanup at Fukushima, failing to train them or to equip them with the proper safety gear, and paying them less than the law requires a worker to be paid — less than minimum wage.

By contrast, the reports from the Costa Concordia salvage operation give the impression that everything is being done very carefully by workers who have been thoughtfully selected as having the skills needed for the work to be done. Yes, the ship is moving in slow motion, a millimeter at a time, but nevertheless, in two years, it is halfway home.

I see it as a tale of two industries. The cruise industry can spend the money to correct its problems because cruises are fundamentally profitable. The nuclear industry is reluctant to spend the money that a cleanup will ultimately require because nuclear electricity is fundamentally a money-losing proposition, able to function only with a panoply of direct and indirect public subsidies, but even then, looking for every chance to cut corners.

Someday someone will take responsibility for the steps necessary to retrieve, salvage, and dispose of the materials that remain in and under the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi. There are reasons to doubt, though, whether this can happen during the lifetimes of the people who are currently in charge.