But when thousands die, or when some sudden calamity befalls us, the tendency of politicians, journalists, policymakers and experts is to seize the moment to advocate radical changes. "A crisis," Rahm Emanuel famously declared in the early days of the Obama administration, "is a terrible thing to waste."
So here we go again in Japan, where the tragedy is literally too terrible to comprehend. The death toll, the scale — the whole nation moved 8 to 12 feet — the suddenness: It all overwhelms.
And yet the search for scapegoats and the thirst to confirm one's preferred policies kicked in almost immediately.
The most egregious examples were attempts to link, no matter how tenuously, the earthquake with climate change. Though in fairness, such balderdash has been far less common than it was in the wake of the Asian tsunami of 2004, never mind the riot of idiocy after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 (when, for example, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. blamed Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour: "Now we are all learning what it's like to reap the whirlwind of fossil-fuel dependence which Barbour and his cronies have encouraged.").
This time, all eyes seem to be on the nuclear industry. Part of the problem is the news media's burning desire to cover the earthquake as if it is not just "breaking news" but a calamity unfolding "live." Relatively safe cleanup efforts are less exciting than possible impending doom.
Meanwhile, opponents of nuclear power are pouncing not on the actual facts but on the climate of fear. The reactors aren't completely contained yet, but the vast majority of nuclear experts made it clear early on that there were would be no "Chernobyl" in Japan. The design of the Japanese reactors is simply superior to that ancient Soviet design (in part because the Russians built Chernobyl to allow harvesting of material for nuclear bombs). Radioactive smoke was inevitable at Chernobyl, which had no containment structure. Risks abound, but similar smoke in Japan remains unlikely.
Meanwhile, the "radiation clouds" released thus far at the Fukushima No. 1 (Daiichi) facility have the equivalent of a single dental X-ray before they quickly dissipate, nuclear power expert William Tucker noted in the Wall Street Journal.
In Europe, where nuclear power is vastly more common than it is here, the Japanese earthquake is being exploited to the hilt. "If the Japanese," editorializes the British newspaper the Independent, "with all their understandable inhibitions about anything nuclear and all their world-leading technology, cannot build reactors that are invulnerable to disaster, who can?"
Well, that's just it. Who said anything, anywhere is invulnerable to disaster? At magnitude 9.0, this was Japan's biggest earthquake and could be the fourth largest ever recorded (it was even detected in Pennsylvania). Perhaps the standard shouldn't be whether Japan's reactor was "invulnerable" but whether it succeeded by taking such a beating without threatening much human life?
The damaged reactors are ruined, but so what? Cars are designed to be ruined after a major accident too. We routinely, and wisely, trade salvageability for survivability. Few skyscrapers in the United States can withstand a 9.0 earthquake — should we stop making tall buildings? The lesson here just might be that the earthquake proved the system worked, not that it failed.
And yet, many in the industry fear that the unscientific hysteria over the Japanese reactor will deal a mortal blow to nuclear power. You would at least think that climate-change activists, who want fossil-free energy (and to bolster the reputation of scientists), would be throwing coolant on the public's overreaction.
Who knows what the lessons of this tragedy will be? But rather than worry about letting this crisis go to waste, this strikes me as a great moment to simply cope.