Scrimping on Regulators puts Public Safety at Risk

General Electric marketed the Mark 1 boiling water reactors that were used in Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant as cheaper to build than other reactors because they used a smaller and less expensive containment structure. Yet American safety officials have long thought the smaller design more vulnerable to explosion and rupture in emergencies than competing designs.

Here’s the problem: Profit-making corporations have every incentive to underestimate these probabilities and lowball the likely harms. This is why it’s necessary to have such things as government regulators and why regulators need enough resources to enforce the regulations. And it’s why recent proposals in Congress to cut the budgets of agencies charged with protecting public safety are so wrong-headed. It’s also why regulators have to be independent of the industries they regulate.

When there’s a revolving door between regulatory agency and industry, officials are reluctant to bite the hands that will feed them. Finally, the tendency of corporations to understate the probabilities of public harms requires that limits be placed on corporate political power. The public cannot not be adequately protected as long as big corporations … are allowed to bribe legislators with campaign donations and boondoggles. 

The author of this opinion, Robert Reich, is a professor at UC Berkeley and former Secretary of Labor.


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