I’m at Ecomodernism 2018, a conference by the Breakthrough Institute in exurban Northern Virginia. It’s not much of an infrastructure or transportation conference (although Breakthrough tells me they are getting interested in these subjects), so I instead went to a breakout session about nuclear power. The session was better than other parts of the conference, but was still not great in the sense that what I saw of it made me less sympathetic to nuclear power than I was before. I want to describe my thought process here, not because nuclear power is a relevant subject to this blog (whatever opinion on it I hold is tepid) but because it showcases how trust works and how people in power need to listen to critics.
Before I go further, I want to make it clear that I did not go to the entire session. It was a two-hour discussion in a circle; an hour in I had to run to the bathroom, and while there I discovered that my flight back to Paris got canceled due to airline bankruptcy and had to run to my room to look for alternatives. So it’s entirely possible my concerns were addressed in the second hour, although judging by where the discussion was going when I left, I doubt it.
What I saw at the discussion concerned technical issues regarding costs and regulations. As far as I remember, everyone at the 19-person discussion other than me had some ties to nuclear advocacy or the industry, except possibly one law professor who was involved in the debate over nuclear regulations. People with background in the industry talked about how American regulations are excessively cautious about safety zones (and in response to my question told me the rest of the world mostly follows American regulations). The law professor asked if modernizing the regulations would always mean loosening controls or if there were places where tightening was required; two people gave convoluted replies that basically said they were only talking about loosening rules without explicitly saying so.
Missing from the entire discussion as far as I could see was the issue of trust. Nuclear power requires immense personal trust in the firms building the plants and in the state. Nuclear advocates keep explaining that first-world regulatory regimes are a lot stronger than whatever the Soviet Union had during Chernobyl. But it’s hard to understand to what extent this is true without very deep ties to the conversation. On a car or a train, it’s easy for a passenger to feel that something is wrong – that there is a lot of sway, that the train driver is overrunning platforms, that the road is visibly in poor condition, etc. There’s no need to trust that the system is safe because passengers can readily see that it is safe. A nuclear plant is different: one minute it’s working, the next minute it’s blowing up.
In cultural theory, trust is mostly an egalitarian issue. To the egalitarian, the exact details of the regulations don’t matter nearly as much as the population’s ability to trust that the regulators are honest. Producing this kind of honesty is hard.
Even hierarchical institutions are full of folklore about people in power being stupid or dishonest. World War Two, the epitome of hierarchy, still produced Catch-22 and copious enlisted folklore about obstructive officers. Even my grandfather at one point asked if the anonymous commander of his resistance group in the ghetto was helping dig shelters or whether he was just telling grunts to do so (later he learned that the person he was asking this question of, while they dug the shelters together, was the anonymous commander). Even at their best, hierarchical organizations are necessarily compartmentalized and secret, and never immune to the occasional social climber, narcissist, or asshole (in fact the word “asshole” came out of WW2 lexicon referring to obstructive officers).
To the extent there is a direct connection to transportation, the mode of transportation that elicits the biggest trust concerns is the self-driving car. The airplane elicits a similar fear, but the airline industry has spent the last few decades ruthlessly prioritizing safety over anything else – cost, comfort, flexibility, speed, fuel efficiency. In contrast, the tech industry’s “move fast and break things” ethos not only causes visible accidents (such as Tesla’s occasional crashes or Uber’s fatal AV crash) but also reminds the public that to the industry, safety is a secondary concern to world domination.
This problem gets worse when the industry or the state does not understand it has a trust deficit. In France, I’m pro-nuclear. In the US, I’m more skeptical, because of the morass of conflicting federal and state regulations, local NIMBYism, and industry efforts; at the discussion, when someone brought up financing, I explicitly asked about the state-built plants of South Korea, which the moderator had brought up in a report about nuclear plant costs, and was told that this is not on the agenda for the US.
French regulators have proven themselves more trustworthy to me than American ones, so when Macron calls for expanding nuclear energy I react more positively than when third way American thinktanks do. Similarly, France simultaneously implements or at least tries to implement parallel green policies, such as building more public transit, which helps convince me that Macron’s vision of the future treats decarbonization as a priority. In contrast, Ecomodernism 2018 saw fit to treat “is climate change a serious problem?” as a debate that reasonable people may disagree about, and treats oil and gas expansion as a respectable minority opinion within the movement, which helps convince me its support of nuclear is about pissing off the mainstream green movement and not about providing an extra tool for base load power to avoid the intermittency problem of renewable energy.
If the people who are responsible for implementing such technology misunderstand that they have a trust deficit, they will not do anything about it. At worst, they will talk about how to market the technology, as if the problem is about convincing the public that they’re trustworthy and not about actually putting safety first.
In rationalism, there is something called “steelmanning.” To steelman a position is to find the strongest possible argument for it, even if it is not what one’s interlocutor exactly said. This contrasts with strawmanning, i.e. finding the weakest possible argument and attacking it as unreasonable. Ecomodernism 2018’s first proper session, a discussion with people who changed their minds on environmental issues, brought this term up as a positive, contrasting it with partisan polarization.
As far as I saw at the discussion, the discussion of nuclear power did not steelman the anti-nuclear movement and its emphasis on trust and (in Germany and Japan) the issue of American military involvement.
That said, I don’t believe in steelmanning, because if a movement recurrently fails to make what I think the strongest arguments for its position is, I reserve the right to use it to judge what it considers important. This way I dismiss movement libertarians’ opposition to public transit, because they seem indifferent to cost comparisons; those are a free shot at many US transit projects, but make transit look like a reasonable proposition in some circumstances and suggest improvements that would make it cost-effective, conflicting with Wendell Cox’s maximalist attitude that cars are always superior.
But by the same token, I am compelled to dismiss the ecomodernist line about nuclear energy, which I was sympathetic to until the conference began. There are strong arguments in favor of nuclear power: its safety record in developed countries in the last few decades has been positive, it is less intermittent than solar power, and Germany’s decommissioning of nuclear plants without adequate renewable replacement has not been great for its carbon footprint. On the bus shuttle from Washington to the conference I sat next to someone who convincingly made some of these arguments, explaining that solar costs per watt are understated due to intermittency. But at least the first half of the discussion I attended today neither brought them up (except in the context of the desirability of loosening regulations) nor adequately wrestled with the opposition.
In public transit and urbanism, the same issue sometimes occurs. It’s not as stark as with nuclear plants because people can see changes more readily, but getting people to trust public transit authorities that have recurrently proven themselves incompetent or dishonest is not a trivial task. It is imperative that people who support good transit make it clear that everything has tradeoffs: cost-effective subway lines involve surface disruption (which can be reduced but not eliminated), regional rail modernization means people at some suburban stations will no longer be guaranteed a seat and will definitely not be guaranteed first-class status elevated over the urban working class, fare integration usually comes with an increase in base fares for people who don’t transfer, bus network redesigns make some people’s trips longer and are net negative for passengers with especially high transfer and walking penalties.
Transit is a world of heterogeneous preferences. An optimal network is necessarily a compromise between many different people’s personal weights on reliability, walking time, in-vehicle travel time, etc. As a compromise, it will piss some people off, and it’s necessary to make it very clear what is happening, as agencies reform themselves from the swamp of most American operators to proper transport associations. Trust is critical: just as passengers’ trust in the schedule is crucial to ensure they wait for the bus or train rather than driving or forgoing the trip, people’s trust in the authority to make good decisions is crucial to ensure they participate in and respect the process rather than checking out and treating transportation as an imposition to be avoided whenever possible.