China Builds Nuclear Power Generating Stations On The Cheap. Is That Good? A Lot Depends On Cultural Factors, Which Can Operate In Surprising Ways

Economies of…dictatorship? Is that what’s happening here?

Given Chinese quality control practices, corruption and technical experience, what can we expect? Clouds of radioactive particles drift across continents…. This newsletter does not trust China to build or operate the plants properly. That does not mean disaster is certain. Itdoes mean the chances of Chinese accidents are substantially higher than they are in the USA, but not as high as they are in Russia.

Everybody has accidents because nobody’s perfect. The challenge is not to have zero accidents, but to make them all small, and avoid the domino effect (in which one accident causes another, and a cascade of horrifying events results). That challenge can be met, even in the industries that use the most complex technology, because every catastrophe is always the result of a confluence of factors. Those include malfeasance, dereliction of duty, corruption, common laziness, bad luck and incompetence. The big, bad accidents are never caused by just one thing that happens without warning after all procedures have been properly followed. Every technology-related catastrophe was preceded by multiple missed opportunities to prevent it.

That was true of NASA’s blunders, for example. Remember Richard Feynman? If not, read this web page or this opinionated version or this rather different take on the tragic story.

The world will never know how many horrible accidents are aborted by a guy with a broom who notices something and reports it to a competent worker. It happens dozens of times every day.

It happens, that is, in cultures where the guy with the broom is not considered a subhuman.

Not too many years ago, a Thai Airways plane crashed because the pilot refused to pay attention to his crew. The cause? Thai social prejudice. “I’m the captain, I’m always right, I make the decisions, you underlings are not on my level and you are not permitted to interrupt.” Sound crazy? That’s because it is crazy.

That does not make it an inaccurate description of Thai prejudice and practice. Note how the official report of the crash — which killed all on board — glosses over the fact that the captain shrugged off the warning noted by his crew and reported to him by them. Mustn’t offend the Thais.

By contrast, a commercial pilot (USA born and bred) known to this newsletter reports that he was bringing his passenger liner into a large eastern US airport with a “deadheading” pilot riding behind him. Too busy to look out his forward-facing windshield, the pilot was startled when his colleague shouted, “Pull up!!” Without raising his head to look, the pilot jerked the stick back violently and drove the throttles forward. A private aircraft crossed right to left in front of the airliner, on what was a certain collision course had the larger plane not climbed frantically.

The culture of the pilot, not the technology of the plane, saved everyone: there was no “I’m the captain of this plane, what’s the matter with you, you idiot? Let me see what upset you” reaction. Anyone would have been able to cause the pilot to pull up violently by shouting a warning — a stewardess, a passenger visiting on the flight deck, anyone.

But — and it’s a huge “but” — had that pilot been Thai, he might well have instinctively considered the warning an impolite interruption challenging his authority, and could have felt it necessary to check to see what had caused the (presumably foolish) underling to over-react. That pause to evaluate the warning provided by a person of lower social status would have killed everyone.

In Thailand, the competence of the individual is not measured so much by performance, but by position. High-status jobs (and good grades in school) are typically secured by family connections or bribes. It is assumed that once you have the title you have the qualifications, and whatever you do or fail to do is not questioned. It would be impolite/disrespectful/improper to take you to task for your shortcomings, and your social inferiors would almost never challenge you; if they did, they, not you, would be criticized. There are, of course, occasional exceptions to that general pattern, but overall it holds.

What role Chinese values may play in the safety of nuclear power plants is hard to say, but it should be clear that how the Chinese think about their fellow humans will be important.

One of the best safety devices in the world is respect for the work force.

Industrial Safety Issue Number Two: Bhopal

One cannot think about China’s nuclear power plants without recalling the Indian tragedy. The lessons to be learned from that horror are many, and the full story will not be found here, but some conclusions are obvious. Once again, they demonstrate the importance of taking culture into account.

The following politically incorrect conclusions are inevitable.

1. The catastrophe was not Union Carbide’s fault. It is, from first causes to today, a years-long pure Indian event.

2. The management of the plant was Indian, and if Union Carbide (UC) had held those people to proper standards of plant maintenance and safety, the cultural friction would have caused blazing acrimony and an eventual fracture of relations with the US company. Charges of racism, neo-colonialism and fascism would have been flung at UC. For those reasons, the company was unable to exercise the oversight required to assure proper practice. It had to turn the plant over to Indian mismanagement.

3. After the tragedy, the Indian government abused the victims as pawns in its vilification and extortion of UC. Treatment was deliberately withheld and the suffering of the blinded and disabled was enormously increased in order to put heavy pressure on UC.

Yes, many cultures discriminate against some of their bearers, but the Indian value system is almost uniquely inhumane. A point-by-point comparison of Bhopal with the USA’s Tuskegee syphilis study, for example, reveals significant differences of kind and degree. Ethically, Tuskegee was very bad, shocking and inexcusable. Ethically, Bhopal was incomprehensibly monstrous — simply off the scale.

And of course the Indian government has never acknowledged its egregious transgressions.

4. For weeks before the Bhopal event, a slow chemical process was allowed to continue; had anyone performed routine maintenance, nothing bad would have happened. The opportunities safely to prevent disaster were virtually infinite in number. But because the plant was manufacturing no product, it was presumed — against all training, instruction, and standard practice — harmless.

Bhopal is the horrible example of the harm that can result when cultural values assert themselves over imported technology. Its lessons are many, and the politically correct reporting of the tragedy has prevented the public at large from even being aware of them.

If anything remotely like the Bhopal accident takes place in a Chinese nuclear power plant, the harm will not be localized. The consequences will be with us for decades.

It is, therefore, only rational to ask how the Chinese value system regards human beings. What evidence can we assemble from history and contemporary studies to shed light on that question?

What, in other words, do educated and powerful Chinese think of that guy with the broom?

Links For Your Entertainment And Self-Improvement

It’s commonly believed that modern psychiatry is scientific and effective. It does not always appear to be either.

Here’s information on tar sands. You will hear more about this as a source of petrochemicals, so an understanding of the basics will be beneficial.

First of all, when you complain about Jew-hatred, make sense:

“Jews are always a convenient scapegoat in times of crisis, but the Madoff scandal and the fact that so many of the defrauded investors are Jewish has created a perfect storm for the anti-Semites,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL (Anti-Defamation League) national director.

Jews are victims, and therefore culpable?? Only in a Muslim world….

Genetically modified bacteria are producing alcohols, which can be used as fuels. This technology could be very helpful.

Here’s an interesting article on the “living fossil fish.”

There may be one website in here somewhere that is just what you badly need.

Superstring theory is a fantastic aspect of physics; here’s a good website for those who are interested.

Religious authoritarianism has reared up in Turkey. What is hard for hard-line Muslims to understand is that this and this do not address genuine insults. That’s no surprise; after all, if Canada can’t grasp that simple point, how can anyone expect Turkey to?

In what looks like the expression of an unacknowledged mindset, psychologists are often eager to prove their hypotheses by making people look bad. Skinner and Watson started this malevolent trend in their “science,” and it continues today. Here’s a recent report on the repetition of an experiment everybody in psychology seems to love a little too much. In a few years, someone will probably do it again. Strictly for science, of course.

This female claims your personality changes when you speak another tongue. Really? It’s a very dubious assertion, but worth a look. Caution: any writer who uses the word “morph” as a legitimate verb meaning “to change” is highly suspect…and might even change her personality depending on which language she is speaking at the time.

A recent report on Mars hints at the suitability of the planet for human colonization. Hmmmm…there’s no mention of the fact that unlike Earth, Mars has no magnetic field, so radiation will kill you if you stay there very long.

How did life start? That’s a huge question some folks are trying to answer. Er, ah, can we afford this program?

Sheesh! Dating, the meat market, one-night stands, rejection, shacking up, breakups, co-dependency, feminist issues, divorce, Peter Pan Syndrome, female nesting behavior, fear of commitment, control issues — it’s a struggle, finding a compatible mate. Well, now the long engagement may be replaced by a lab test.

“Dark energy” is a misleading name for the behavior of matter and gravity across incomprehensibly great distances. That’s this newsletter’s guess, anyway. Maybe in fifty years more will be known; until then, the “explanations” will remain unconvincing, and the admissions of ignorance not sufficiently sweeping. That gravity functions anomalously on the cosmic scale is just not understood yet.

Four Links Leading To US Political Issues

Staying cool as the winners turn up the heat.

Readying Rahm for removal?

A tangle to be avoided: this newsletter hereby walks away from the fracas over The One’s choice of the clergyman who will give the invocation (benediction?) at the swearing-in ceremony. On the one side you have sore losers, and on the other side you have this guy…

…last spring he claimed he attended the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church for 20 years while disagreeing with his radical sermons, which he also said he hadn’t heard.

The wise adage tells us, “Don’t get into a spray with a skunk.” Surely it’s twice as wise when there are two skunks involved.

The arriving administration is pondering troop withdrawals from Iraq, which prompts a weblogger to observe,

My bet is that this is an inoculating early leak so that fewer doves are actually left standing on the rug when Obama finally and formally pulls it out from under them.

That certainly could be. But suppose the hard left mobilizes to stop Bush III on foreign policy. That could prompt Obama to move further to the left on domestic issues, in an effort to placate the neo-Marxists who backed him so enthusiastically.

Finally: The Horror We Must Confront

Be brave, be stalwart! Face the abomination; let it do its worst; then…master it with your resolve, and you shall banish it to the nether regions whence it came.

So mote it be.