What Government Must Learn From Disasters

By the year 2050, 9.2 billion people with robust personal and communal energy needs will inhabit the globe.  Such extreme population growth demands an honest conversation on energy consumption and sustainability.  Nuclear energy will inevitably remain at the forefront of the debate.  However, the scourge of recent natural disasters, particularly the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, also call for not just an increase in alternative energy production but an evaluation of each method’s safety.  The American government simply cannot allow the lessons of Japan and Fukushima to drift away as it has the ramifications of the BP Oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

The one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon explosion recently passed, without much pomp or reflection outside of the Gulf South. Congress has taken no major permanent action concerning oil drilling safety or policy since the explosion. The moratorium on offshore drilling was largely unsupported, and eventually lifted, without a permanent policy to take its place.  If history is any indication, it took Congress well over a year to enact legislation after Exxon Valdez. However, with the superior scientific and environmental knowledge of today, political change deserves swifter and bolder action.

As gas prices continue to rise, the desire to drill oil for immediate price-relief stifles the push for reform.  Some politicians are even pushing to accelerate oil drilling without any significant reform legislation in place.  The increasing polarization of government could further facilitate such failures. “Big oil’ seems to have an enormous influence on the legislative process, derailing the necessary reforms of future energy supply and consumption policies.

And as we slowly push to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, the conversation we should be having on energy consumption should involve more rather than less nuclear energy.  Nuclear energy plants could sustain large portions of the expanding population, and when operated safely and without interference from environmental forces, are extremely safe.  However, in the wake of the tsunami in Japan and subsequent crises at Fukushima, our awareness of the dangers inherent in nuclear energy production is heightened, and our reliance on fossil fuels threatens to continue unabated.

Fukushima has now been classified as a “level seven” accident on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES), placing it nearly on the same accident level as Chernobyl. The event has taken an enormous humanitarian, environmental, and economic toll on Japan.  In recognition of the magnitude of this disaster, any discussion of alternative energy sources must essentially include improvements to safety.  A combination of changes to construction standards, waste removal policies, safety policies, and reactor location sites is only a start. Responsible sustainable energy calls for identifying systemic failures, updating and better-enforcing regulations, and thinking carefully about nuclear development for the growing energy needs of the world.

Yet despite our best-laid plans, the power of Mother Nature supersedes all.  And the human and environmental tolls from natural disasters are enormous.  The American government, and all governments, must not let the Fukushima lesson pass as we let the lessons of the BP oil spill pass.  Continuing old practices because of political entrenchment and lack of planning will prove to be the biggest disaster of all.

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Daniel Volkosh is pursuing his J.D. at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.  ”Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” – Voltaire

Welcome to the University of Denver Sturm College of Law/Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Blog, a special section of triplepundit.com! Here, University of Denver Sturm College of Law students will report on emerging, novel and contested land use and development issues from a sustainability perspective. We believe the development of the American West, and indeed the entire planet, necessitates a closer and more responsible look at not only how we use natural resources but how we build our communities and economies.We invite you to comment and engage with us over issues of interest to you. And we invite you to suggest topics for us to research and report on from our unique perspective as law students. But most of all, we invite you to take these ideas and share them with your friends and colleagues so we can all be involved in a more informed and forward-thinking discussion about our future.