On March 20, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said that “the NRC remains confident that our Reactor Oversight Program, which includes both on-site and region-based inspectors, is effectively monitoring the safety of U.S. nuclear power plants.”
A few days earlier, U.S. Energy Secretary Stephen Chu proclaimed that “the American people should have full confidence that the United States has rigorous safety regulations in place.”
It is an interesting choice of words. The government has confidence in its programs and inspectors; the public is asked to have confidence in the government.
“Confidence” means, literally, “shared faith.” To have faith in someone is to trust them with something important — a vital secret, one’s health, one’s retirement account, one’s children, one’s life.
Some people associate faith exclusively with religion. But the idea that faith consists of holding certain religious beliefs is a misleadingly narrow conception. Faith is not simply or even primarily a matter of belief. Faith implies a trusting relationship, not mental certainty. Like all virtues, the test of it lies in a person’s actions.
Some religious and political leaders make agreeing with beliefs more important than the quality of one’s actions, an emphasis that is warranted neither by sound theology nor good politics. This misplaced emphasis on belief leads to the misconception that the opposite of faith is doubt.
Faith has two corresponding vices — a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. The vice of excess is gullibility — being too ready to place control in the hands of another who is not necessarily trustworthy. The vice of deficiency is skepticism — an unwillingness to trust regardless of merit.
The gullible person is not interested in asking difficult questions. To him, the fact that government officials declare nuclear plants safe is evidence enough. When critics bring up radioactive waste storage, he changes the subject, insisting simply that we need nuclear plants to keep energy affordable.
The skeptic won’t take yes for an answer. If new and safer plant designs are proposed, she doesn’t want to consider them. She will point to Japan and Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. She refuses to trust without having absolute proof that things will turn out well, but that standard of certainty is never possible.
In many cases, people prove worthy of our faith in them. Those who grow and inspect our food, build and repair our airplanes, teach our children, and ensure the quality of our drinking water, generally do a good job. Sometimes accidents happen or oversights occur, but, for the most part, our daily practical confidence in those who are responsible for public safety is warranted.
But nuclear power is different. Not just because the potential for human catastrophe is greater, but because it is on a scale that human beings cannot comprehend.
I trust the government when it says current nuclear power plants have safety standards and policies in place that make it very unlikely for a nuclear meltdown to occur in the next 10 to 20 years. But when it says we can safely produce thousands of tons of radioactive waste for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren to dispose of, they are talking about something they have no ability to comprehend.
Predictions about what will happen with radioactive waste in the distant future are based on assumptions (environmental, economic, political, and technological) that are unknown and unknowable.
The energy company that proposes to build a plant producing 10,000 years of radioactivity for 30 years of energy is like a church that promises eternal life in return for $100 in the offering plate.
How do we know when to place our faith in someone? There is no rule for that, no foolproof set of guidelines or instructions — just as there are no sure guidelines for how to act courageously, or temperately, or wisely, or justly. But a good rule of thumb is not to trust someone whose promises are out of all proportion to their capacity to deliver.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Richard Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.