The New York Times today has an interesting article about how Japanese nuclear plant regulators only a month before the quake extended the operating license for the destroyed Unit 1 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Station. The plant had been in operation since 1971, but it passed the safety review for extending another 10 years, even though its safety systems were clearly outmoded and whistleblowers showed the utility, TEPCO, had repeatedly lied and covered up safety problems at its reactors.

Nothing about that story surprised me. What caught my attention was the Times’ suggestion the US regulatory regime is better. According to the story, Japanese safety regulation suffered from conflicts of interest, since the agency responsible for oversight was also charged with promoting the technology and assuring the public. The US is different, the Times story implies: [my bold]

Like many critics of Japan’s nuclear industry, Mr. Sato attributed weak oversight to a conflict of interest that he said essentially stripped the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency of its effectiveness. The agency, which is supposed to act as a watchdog, is under the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which has a general policy of encouraging the development of Japan’s nuclear industry.

The ministry and the agency, in turn, share cozy ties with Tokyo Electric and other operators — some of which offer lucrative jobs to former ministry officials in a practice known as “amakudari,” or descent from heaven. . . .

The Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, which is supposed to provide a second layer of scrutiny, is understaffed and largely an advisory group. Masatoshi Toyoda, a former vice president at Tokyo Electric who, among other jobs, ran the company’s nuclear safety division, said the organization should be strengthened. The United States had a similar setup until the 1970s, when Congress broke up the old Atomic Energy Commission into the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

So what was the problem? They had a government responsible for oversight but also advocating the technology and assuring the public it’s safe. They had a revolving door between the industry and government, with lucrative careers for those moving from oversight to industry. They suffered from insufficient oversight staff and funding and regulatory capture.

Which of these elements is missing from the US scheme? None. In fact, it’s just as bad or worse here.

We’ve had successive Democratic and Republican Administrations being major advocates of nuclear power and its safety. Our President routinely assures us how safe the technology is even as we watch plants explode and melt down. You can bet neither this nor previous Presidents appointed NRC Commissioners with strongly negative views of nuclear plant safety, because strong industry skeptics can’t get confirmed. See Krugman today for other examples.

Worse, we have a Tea-GOP Congress that thinks the problem with America is too much regulation, and a bunch of anti-science crazies slashing budgets and repealing regulatory authority for every agency with oversight over the energy industry. We’ve got million dollar revolving doors.

I’ve worked with many highly qualified and dedicated engineers and technical experts in my career, and I have the utmost respect for their integrity. Most do the best they can within the contraints they’re given. But the people who manage them and the people who pay their salaries, and more important, the Wall Street investors they listen to are a different breed. The more their compensation depends on taking shortcuts and concealing problems, the more likely they’re inclined to do so. Inevitably, the entire system gets corrupted from the top down, from bought legislators to captured Presidential advisers and regulatory agency appointees and the people they pick to manage oversight.

Of course it’s not just nuclear. Consider what we’ve witnessed with the Massey coal mine disasters, or the BP Gulf oil disaster, or Chevron in South American, or Koch Industries or the Chamber of Commerce and Exxon Mobil’s onslaught on climate science, or natural gas fracking in Pennsylvania . . . . Regulatory capture, promotion mixed with oversight, revolving doors and corrupt appointees. The same patterns show up everywhere, without exception.

Good engineering and safety analysis eventually get ignored or compromised. Whistleblowers are stifled and lose their jobs without protection. Safety reports get buried. Regulators become captured as the political system’s corruption takes its toll.

I’ve long since concluded that choices about risky technnologies aren’t primarily a question whether inherently unsafe technologies like nuclear power can, in theory, be made relatively “safe enough.” In another world, perhaps they could be. No, the problem is the money and what it does to the politics, and that’s what determines whether a technology is “safe.”

It’s usually the politics that produce the disasters. As long as that’s true, we’re safer with technologies that don’t lead to horrendous catastrophes even if the political system fails, as it always does.