Nuclear power plants are incredibly controversial. They conjure images of atomic explosions and victims suffering from radiation sickness in our heads. A couple of years ago I saw a statistic in a science magazine that the risk to the public is incredibly small. Living close to a nuclear power station for a year is about as dangerous as drinking a bottle of Coca-Cola or going on a short bike ride. Most reasonable people would accept this risk as a fair exchange for the benefits nuclear power generates.
Nuclear power doesn’t release pollutants into the atmosphere during operation. Coal, gas or oil powered stations release many different atmospheric pollutants into the air. If I remember correctly, about 10 000 people die each year in the United States from illnesses and complications as a result of pollution from fossil fuel powered energy generation. Nuclear clearly has a leg up here. The benefits of renewable sources of energy are well known, but the downsides are not often talked about as much, I will therefore talk about them here. Hydro requires a large commitment in terms of land, it greatly affects local ecosystems in the nearby areas. Wind is unreliable as it requires specific weather conditions (also it murders birds like no tomorrow). Solar requires somewhat clear skies, and the construction of solar panels requires dirty rare earth minerals.
The fuel for nuclear is incredibly dense. A small amount of radioactive fuel is equivalent to heaps upon heaps of coal. The drawbacks are safety and waste related. How to handle nuclear waste long term is controversial. Storing it deep underground is costly and the safety record of this method is disputed. The elephant in the room is of course accidents. The two big accidents that are well known to the public are the Chernobyl accident and the more recent Fukushima accident. Three Mile Island is not included here due to its limited scope and lack of environmental damage.
I think it is an interesting thought experiment to think about how different societies would approach a nuclear power plant accident. Serious accidents require rapid response to resolve dangerous conditions. Left unattended, the melted fuel core at Chernobyl would have reached the ground water, likely exploding and contaminating the water supply for millions and spreading vastly more radioactivity into the atmosphere than already was the case. We still monitor Norwegian sheep grazing in the mountains for levels of radioactivity all these years later. At Fukushima, a similar risk was present, without intervention (more/more serious) meltdown would have occurred.
Radioactivity isn’t friendly to human life or human health. We all get some exposure to radioactivity through background cosmic radiation without being worse for the wear. The negative aspects are heavily dose dependent. Serious accidents at nuclear power stations usually involve the reactor core, the most radioactive part of the plant. It therefore follows that the workers alleviating the situation will have to expose themselves to incredible personal risk to prevent greater harm. Current robotics technology is unable to sufficiently shield robots to allow them to replace humans in the accident response. They simply break down under the strain of incredibly powerful radioactivity.
How would collectivistically oriented societies respond to a looming nuclear disaster at a plant? We already have two case studies. Chernobyl was a part of the communistic Soviet Union. The necessary workforce could easily be compelled by force to take part in the clean-up and emergency response. We know that a number of workers died as a direct consequence of the exposure they suffered. Japan is also very group oriented, with the individual expected to conform to preserve harmony. I will therefore categorize Japan as a collectivistic society for this purpose. Collectivistic societies certainly have an edge when it comes to getting people to volunteer (or in the Soviet case, not resist as much as they otherwise would) for dangerous duty.
At first glance, individualistic societies would have a harder time with responding effectively to critical accidents requiring immediate response. If people are primarily looking out for their own best interests, how would you get enough volunteers in a timely fashion? Would such societies simply be unable to cope? I don’t think so, there are many different approaches to solve this conundrum. Family is important both in collectivistic and individualistic societies. Parents have sacrificed themselves for the lives of their children countless times throughout history. A part of this sentiment could be leaned upon, perhaps through great financial incentivization. You would suffer tremendous consequences as a result of the great amount of radiation necessary to work at the accident site. If your family was offered financial security in exchange, perhaps enough people would be willing to make the trade?
Other solutions are for instance using other people as the response crew. At Fukushima, old people took part in the response. They rationally though that since they were already old, they wouldn’t live long enough anyway to develop the cancers likely to develop from great exposure. Condemned criminals could also be used in exchange for commutations of sentences. I will not go into whether this is ethical or not here. We must also consider that nuclear accidents might be less likely to occur in individualistic non-conformist societies compared to collectivistic societies. One would certainly think that it would be harder to question your superiors if you though they were making operational mistakes at the plant. Criticizing bad routines or lax safety procedures would also be harder to bring up.
Self-interest would certainly be able to play an important role in making individualistic workers sceptical about procedures or changes likely to incur danger at a plant. This being said, we have seen nuclear accidents in societies of both types, so this is certainly no guarantee against serious accidents.