Monday, March 28, 2011

Our technical limits are human

In a comment on the nuclear calamity in Fukushima, Japan, the German philosopher Rüdiger Safranski states that this event shows that we have reached the limits of what we can make. After Harrisburg and Chernobyl, we see that nuclear power cannot be controlled. We behave like the sorcerer’s apprentice who did not know how to stop the forces that he had evoked. This means that we have to learn what we can and what we cannot do, so Safranski (
On the face of it, it seems that not much needs to be added to this comment and that it clearly words what went wrong and how we can prevent such mistakes in future. Safranski says that the Fukushima calamity and other catastrophes of this kind show that the human capacity to discover and control the secrets of nature has its limits. Therefore it is better to stop with this kind of energy production and to look for other approaches. In my words: we can never grasp and control the technique of nuclear energy production.
I think that Safranski is right; there is a fundamental technical problem here. However, I think that the problem of controlling nuclear energy would also happen when we would be able to build a 100% safe nuclear power plant. For in my opinion the actual problem is not in our technical possibilities but it is elsewhere: the real problem is intrinsically human. This becomes clear, for instance, when we look at the history of the Fukushima power plant. As it has come out, this major calamity has been preceded through the years by some 200 minor calamities and technical problems. Most of them have been kept secret for a long time, and, what is important here, most of them have been caused because the safety rules had not been observed. So, the real cause of calamities of the Fukushima type is not that we do not know our technical limits but that we do not know our human limits. Men are not like robots: you program them and they do what you want them to do. Instead men are individuals who have their own reasons to act and not to follow safety rules. Men are also beings who continuously unintentionally fail to follow safety rules simply by human mistakes. In this sense man is not a reliable being. Moreover, human problems do not exist only on this individual level, but they are also social. As social beings men cooperate with other men, but within this cooperation process they develop their personal interests, which not always correspond with the common interest, whatever this may be. Or there are conflicting common interests and there is not enough money and man power or technical capacity to solve them all. A choice has to be made or the fulfilment of some interests has to be temporarily postponed. In case of lack of money it can be decided, for instance, to postpone the maintenance of a nuclear power plant, for is it really necessary that it needs to take place now and not next year? In short, our most fundamental problem in this nuclear age is not that we need to know our technical limits, but it is that we need to realize that man is a human and that we are as human as humans are. Our most fundamental limits are human and as long as we do not bear this in mind, calamities of the Fukushima type will happen.

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