"Most people today," writes political philosopher John Gray, "think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science."
The unfolding disaster at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station sorely strains that faith, as did the 1979 crisis at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant and the 1986 catastrophe at Chernobyl in the Ukraine.
Fukushima has already surpassed Three Mile Island in intensity. As we go to press, experts concede the possibility of Chernobyl-level meltdown.
Three things stand between resolution and further tragedy: the quality of the engineering of the containment vessels surrounding the nuclear reactors; the heroic efforts of 50 anonymous workers who in the dark and amidst sporadic explosions and fire suffer prolonged radiation exposure while working to stabilize the plant; and — it must be admitted — luck.
This is the third disaster to hit the energy industry within 11 months. The first occurred last April in Montcoal, West Virginia, where a huge explosion rocked the Upper Big Branch Mine, killing 29. A couple of weeks later, an explosion on a British Petroleum drilling rig 52 miles off the coast of Louisiana triggered what became the world's largest oil spill. And now there is Fukushima.
The corporate owners of these enterprises may differ, as do the magnitudes of the respective tragedies, but they share a common denominator: a wanton failure to take adequate safety measures. In the case of Fukushima, it was to safeguard against a worst-case natural disaster.
The Fukushima nuclear plant was crippled by a one-two punch. First, an earthquake of almost unprecedented intensity damaged its reactors. Then, a subsequent tsunami disabled the diesel-powered electric generators that were supposed to serve as a failsafe.
As long ago as 1972, experts within the closed nuclear community issued warnings about potential weakness in the design of the reactors used at Fukushima — and, in the United States, at 16 power plants, including the Pilgrim Nuclear Station that sits overlooking Cape Cod.
According to a US State Department document released via WikiLeaks, American nuclear officials two years ago found Japan's key atomic regulator a "disappointment" for being too close to the nuclear industry.
Days after it became clear that the Fukushima accident was of historic proportions, the Russian nuclear rescue expert who led the Chernobyl clean-up publically criticized Japanese and United Nations nuclear watchdogs for succumbing to corporate influence and greed.
In a world with an insatiable appetite for energy, the greed and concomitant recklessness evinced by corporate overlords in West Virginia, in the Gulf of Mexico, and now in Japan must strike people of good will as nothing short of criminal.