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Private Controls Of Nuclear Plants

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I just had a discussion with a friend of mine about regulations (if they should be done by the state or by private institutions). We discussed doctors and everything and for everything he was bringing forth, I had a counterargument ready why private is better.

But then he started talking about Nuclear plants. And here I was lost. His argument was like this:

"If there were only private controls for nuclear plants, let's say that there is one nuclear plant that is run horribly. It does produce energy but there are hardly any safety standards. What will happen? Your private control finds out: This is horrible! , what are they going to do? They can publicly proclaim: Oh how horrible! and that was about it. Some energy-company will not be buying their energy, but someone will, if the price is right, usually someone who lives so distant that he doesn't have to care. Some people will quit their job (and they will then be replaced by less qualified people which makes matters even worse). Now everyone knows that this plant is a ticking timebomb. And nobody can do anything against it. As long as nothing bad happens, your hands are bound. Any intervention would be an initiation of force, which is not allowed, not even to the police. So then we have the odd situation of a giant threat to everyone and nothing can be done against it."

I totally lacked a counter-argument. What would you have said?

Thanks.

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Something can be done against it, although it would be significantly inconvenient--don't use their electricity.

In a completely free-market society, where there is no regulation, would there not be competing power companies as well, giving incentive for each company to perform at its absolute best? In that situation, I find it extremely hard to believe any "ticking timebomb" would last very long.

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"Don't use their electricity" isn't an answer. As Felix pointed out, people who live far enough away from the plant that they aren't in danger if it has an accident have no incentive to avoid using its output.

This is a particular case of the general question: what right does an Objectivist government have to interfere with someone who is not directly threatening anyone with harm, but is creating a potentially hazardous situation? The general answer, I think, is that at some point the situation is equivalent to a threat of force, which the government does have the right and duty to prevent. How to determine where to draw the line? I don't know. There have probably been threads on the subject on this forum, but I don't have links.

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"The Line" as it were would be drawn by statutory law. I'm not an expert on that subject so I do not know what the content of the law would be. It is clear however that a nuclear power plant, depending on size, has the capacity to render inhabitable a large area, and as such a ticking-time-bomb power plant falls under the realm of criminal negligence

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Why would the owner of such a power plant not try to change the situation? Sell it to someone capable of properly operating it, obtaining investment capital in order to fix it, close down the plant. All of these options are more in the interest of the plant owner than letting the plant cause a catastrophe he will be sued for and, basically, forfeit his life for (whether by death penalty or incredible damages).

Now, if the owner is being irrational (it's my father's plant and I won't sell and won't shut down; god commanded me to keep the plant like this etc.) there are still several questions to be answered:

1. People know nuke plants can be risky if mismanaged, some private entity will inspect nuke plants and proclame them safe (this is a business, and the entity is as viable as it's reputation makes it, so it will strive to properly assess safety). The consumer will tend to buy "safe" energy. If he does not, *his* consumer may chose a competitor who does.

2. Someone has to sell fissile material to the problematic plant. Is it in the interest of such a dealer to provide fissile material to a "timebomb"? Hell no, he does not want his name associated to such an event does he?

In sum, there is no reason to believe that a plant could be mismanaged to the point of catastrophe under a free market - it goes against the interests of too many people, starting with the owner and including his suppliers, consumers and neighbors (he has to buy transport of goods and people to and from the plant right? who will do it? etc.).

mrocktor

Edited by mrocktor
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In that situation, I find it extremely hard to believe any "ticking timebomb" would last very long.

That was my argument. But I don't think it has much impact here. He agreed that in the end you end up in big trouble for screwing this up so badly. But that was not his point. His point is that it is possible for you to completely screw it up with nobody being able to do something against it.

And the customer-boycott-idea doesn't really catch here. Because, if the price is right, someone will buy it. I don't doubt that.

mrocktor

1. Some will buy his energy. Because some people won't care. I don't doubt that.

2. If the price is right, why not? Someone will sell it to him.

You can't trust that everyone is moral. Besides, I'd bet that this guy will still get all the services he needs simply because he pays for them and hardly anyone will make the effort to make that discrimination. After all, this is the usual response to "What if there is someone who has no property and nobody gives him work." Somebody will. It only takes one person.

sNerd, thanks for the link. I have yet to check it out. Maybe that thread contains the answer to my question.

Proverb, do you get problems for "criminal neglience" before or after something bad happens?

Edited by Felix
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Any intervention would be an initiation of force, which is not allowed, not even to the police. So then we have the odd situation of a giant threat to everyone and nothing can be done against it."
You have the elements right there (potentially). Threats are an initiation of force. If this place is really threatening people, you can call the police. If you are simply nervous, then you can move away from where the plant is.
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Now, to change the topic ever so slightly, what about nuclear weapons, i.e. devices intended for no purpose other than mass destruction? Does the existence of a nuke in private hands constitute a prima facie case for armed intervention by the legal monopoly of force?

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You have the elements right there (potentially). Threats are an initiation of force. If this place is really threatening people, you can call the police. If you are simply nervous, then you can move away from where the plant is.

I thought about that before. But I have a problem: What can the police do? The threat is only potential. It's not like this guy is having a nuclear weapon and intentionally trying to blow up the place. He just doesn't regard safety measures well. Can the police intervene in such a situation? And if so, on what basis?

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Now, to change the topic ever so slightly, what about nuclear weapons, i.e. devices intended for no purpose other than mass destruction? Does the existence of a nuke in private hands constitute a prima facie case for armed intervention by the legal monopoly of force?

There's a thread on that exact topic already. SoftwareNerd provided a link in his post above. Maybe that helps.

Here's an earlier thread that might have some related discussion.
Edited by Felix
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A couple of random issues:

Who is financing this plant? Don't they have incentive to keep it safe?

Who is insuring this plant? Seems like it would be hard for a ticking time bomb to maintain liability insurance (or property insurance), without which how do they get workers, service contracts, etc.?

What evidence supports the idea that a typical nuclear power plant could -- even under bad supervision -- become a "time bomb", or any kind of bomb? I think the idea that a power plant could go up in a mushroom cloud is a myth.

Finally, it is possible for such a plant to pose an objective hazard, action against which would not constitute "regulation", but rather legitmate retaliatory force (I don't know what such a hypothetical would consist of, but I assume it could be done -- if an Exxon truck driver got drunk and went swerving down the road with a truckful of gasoline, it would not be "regulation" for the cops to pull him over).

And finally, regarding the nuclear weapon question: private civilians should not be allowed nuclear weapons nor any other weapon of mass destruction. These weapons are objectiviely dangerous to innocents, even in the hands of the best-intentioned; no non-governmental possession of such weapons is justifiable.

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What evidence supports the idea that a typical nuclear power plant could -- even under bad supervision -- become a "time bomb", or any kind of bomb? I think the idea that a power plant could go up in a mushroom cloud is a myth.

That exact scenario may be a myth, but an accident at a nuclear plant can certainly cause extensive damage to those nearby. Chernobyl was no myth. In that sense it's a "time bomb" metaphorically if not literally.

(Chernobyl also illustrates that government regulation of nuclear power doesn't guarantee safety either, but that's not the issue here.)

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Chernobyl does underscore the dangers of governments regulation. Nonethless, history has shown it to be largely a myth. Compare the damage/mortality reports that circulated for years, compared to the more recent assessments of it. I'm sorry I have no citations right now -- I remember the issue re-surfacing in the news over the last couple of years, with reports to the effect that earlier reported effects of the Chernobyl disaster were grossly exaggerated. Perhaps somebody with a convenient link could point that-a-way?

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What can the police do? The threat is only potential.
That would depend on the immediacy and self-evidency of the threat. If a person is threatening to blow your head off with a shotgun pressed to your head, they can act now. If it is not self-evident that someone is threatening you and it is not immediate, then the more leisurely pace of the courts is the proper venue for pursuing the issue. I hope it's obvious that I'm rejecting the claim that running a business in a manner that doesn't fully cow-tow to some snot-nosed politically correct liberal anti-capitalist's view of "safe business" is indeed a threat. There may be a risk, just as there is a risk associated with "allowing" someone to sell gasoline or groceries. The real danger, in these cases, is that businesses are not automatically held to the law of causality and the virtue of justice. Of course since making a profit is a criminal enterprise these days, it's hard to inspire anyone to actually believe in the virtue of justice.
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That would depend on the immediacy and self-evidency of the threat. If a person is threatening to blow your head off with a shotgun pressed to your head, they can act now. If it is not self-evident that someone is threatening you and it is not immediate, then the more leisurely pace of the courts is the proper venue for pursuing the issue. I hope it's obvious that I'm rejecting the claim that running a business in a manner that doesn't fully cow-tow to some snot-nosed politically correct liberal anti-capitalist's view of "safe business" is indeed a threat. There may be a risk, just as there is a risk associated with "allowing" someone to sell gasoline or groceries. The real danger, in these cases, is that businesses are not automatically held to the law of causality and the virtue of justice. Of course since making a profit is a criminal enterprise these days, it's hard to inspire anyone to actually believe in the virtue of justice.

It also depends on whether the threat was present before you chose to live there.

Nuclear power is so safe, excepting extremely bizarre circumstances, that any power plant which truly presented a physical threat to the surrounding area would have to be really back-asswards, and again, I seriously doubt any business running with that kind of inneficiency would last very long at all.

Not to mention that the first people to be damaged by it would be their own employees, so what makes your friend think that any power plant would consider it in their best interest to operate under unsafe conditions? What makes your friend think that the government has a greater interest in upholding safety than the company itself?

Edited by dondigitalia
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I seriously doubt any business running with that kind of inneficiency would last very long at all.

Right. But the problem is that an inefficiently run nuclear power plant can destroy half a country if it blows up.

Not to mention that the first people to be damaged by it would be their own employees, so what makes your friend think that any power plant would consider it in their best interest to operate under unsafe conditions? What makes your friend think that the government has a greater interest in upholding safety than the company itself?

I don't doubt that this is irrational and goes against his self-interest. The problem is something different:

He might say: "Oh well, it will work out fine." and that's that. This is stupid, no doubt about that, but hey, you can't assume that everyone acts rationally. The problem I am adressing is how one can stop the idiots from harming the rest of the population. And to what degree one has the right to do so.

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The principle this is covered under is: There is no right to endanger the lives of other individuals.

If you are going to build a nuclear power plant, any interested party may demand that you demonstrate the safety of the plant. For every reasonable concern about a hazard that anyone brings up, you'll have to explain what measures you have implemented to eliminate the hazard and allow your plant to be audited to make sure that the measures are actually in place. Disagreements about what constitutes a reasonable safety concern or a satisfactory demonstration of safety should be settled in court.

So the government will participate in enforcing safety, but not by telling plant owners how to make plants "safe," but rather by having each plant owner find a way to make his own plant safe.

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The principle this is covered under is: There is no right to endanger the lives of other individuals.

As your discussion following this statement shows, the affirmation is not a valid principle. "Endanger" is subjective, and it's unacceptable that a life guiding principle should be so. Also, your affirmation is a negative and as such cannot be used as a guide for positive action. Try wording your sentiment as a positive and see how it turns out.

"Man has a right to be safe"? How safe? Based on who's judgment?

As has been discussed before (in a thread about prevention of crime, I believe), in a rights respecting government one must have positive evidence that a violation of rights is intended (or likely due to negligence) before the use of force is justified. As David said, if the powerplant is actually threatening people you can call the police - same as if someone walks around pointing a gun at people you can do so. If you do so and no hazard is found, it is only fair that you pay for the inspection.

This is a far cry from having "regulations" or the government granting "authorization" for the operation of nuclear plants. You are free until you actually violate or give clear evidence of the intent of violating rights.

mrocktor

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If you are going to build a nuclear power plant, any interested party may demand that you demonstrate the safety of the plant.
Is this just about nuclear power plants, or does it extend to other businesses, or non-economic activities. For example, if I want to open a chicken ranch, can any interested party demand that I show that my ranch is safe and does not endanger others? Same question with a gas station or grocery store. And how about my next-door neighbor, who often engages in house-fixing projects like painting -- do I have a right to demand that he prove that his actions don't endanger me?
For every reasonable concern about a hazard that anyone brings up, you'll have to explain what measures you have implemented to eliminate the hazard and allow your plant to be audited to make sure that the measures are actually in place. Disagreements about what constitutes a reasonable safety concern or a satisfactory demonstration of safety should be settled in court.
What that means is that when my neighbor starts to paint his back porch, or Jones decides to open a grocery store, I can file an action in court to demand proof that the activity is perfect safe and cannot possibly result in harm to me, for example he has to prove that he canot spill his jug of paint thinner which then gets onto my property and poisons me. That would mean that the courts will have to order the neighbor or the would-be business to halt their actions (stop threatening me) until they have proven that their actions carry no risk at all. Someone has to pay for these nuisance suits. Would you propose that the plaintiff has to cover all of the legal costs unless he prevails in court, in which case the defendant must pay costs? It would be an unconscionable imposition on a man's right to exist if people were alowed to freely demand that others prove in court that they have a right to live.
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Is this just about nuclear power plants, or does it extend to other businesses, or non-economic activities.

Well, did I say "There is no right to endanger the lives of other individuals by building a nuclear plant," or did I say "There is no right to endanger the lives of other individuals" ? ;)

For example, if I want to open a chicken ranch, can any interested party demand that I show that my ranch is safe and does not endanger others?

If there is a bird flu epidemic threatening your ranch and there is objective evidence that it may be harmful to the health of your neighbor, then yes, your neighbor or anyone acting on his behalf may demand to know what you have done to prevent such damage.

Same question with a gas station or grocery store.

You could ask the same question with respect to hundreds of thousands of different things. I hope you'll recognize the usefulness of thinking in principles before this thread gets very long. (w00t)

for example he has to prove that he canot spill his jug of paint thinner which then gets onto my property and poisons me.

Gentlemen don't ask gentlement to prove negatives, nor does an objective court recognize such a demand. If you're afraid of the jug (or the power plant, or anything), it is up to you to show why your concern is reasonable. Not only will you have to show that the paint thinner can get onto your property, you'll also have to demonstrate how it gets from your property into your mouth even while you try to prevent that from happening.

Would you propose that the plaintiff has to cover all of the legal costs unless he prevails in court, in which case the defendant must pay costs?

Yes, that sounds reasonable.

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Gentlemen don't ask gentlement to prove negatives, nor does an objective court recognize such a demand. If you're afraid of the jug (or the power plant, or anything), it is up to you to show why your concern is reasonable.
I was rather concerned over what you meant by saying that "any interested party may demand that you demonstrate the safety of the plant"; I take it you mean "once the plaintif has on his own provided adequate proof that you are threatening his safety, then the defendant must respond to those allegations". May I take it that way?
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I take it you mean "once the plaintif has on his own provided adequate proof that you are threatening his safety, then the defendant must respond to those allegations". May I take it that way?

Let's make it a bit more precise. What the plaintiff has to prove is that the defendant is engaging in an activity that will cause harm to the plaintiff (or the person on whose behalf the plaintiff is acting) unless the defendant takes active safety measures in addition to the safety measures already known to the plaintiff.

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