The Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011 was an 8.9 magnitude quake that caused a 30-foot high tsunami, wiping out more than people's lives, livelihoods and personal property. Although the direct human toll of about 21,000 deaths was horrendous, the damage to the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant could have even worse consequences in the long term. It's not just that radiation leaked into the environment and found its way into the food chain. It's the psychological effect of wondering if you or a loved one will get cancer.
Many of us who are not from Japan don't understand that the Japanese people subconsciously carry fears engendered from the Nagasaki and Hiroshima nuclear bomb attacks that ended World War II. The Japanese themselves may not even realize how deeply their society was affected on a psychological level. Already there are indications that the nuclear industry's growth in Japan has come to a sudden halt.
I think this result is unfortunate because Japan has an appetite for electricity than can probably only be satiated by nuclear energy. Mankind's condition and, ultimately, survival depends on scientific advancements.
Yet, applied science is never without risks. Men died building our early railroads and canals for a dollar a day while separated from their family by thousands of miles. Progress does not come cheaply, but we've learned to be safer today than ever before as we put scientific and engineering advances into practice. However, societies now have much greater expectations for safety and the risks of today's advanced technologies are more dangerous than ever before. But there's no turning back. We must forge ahead, but somehow we must do it as safely as possible. We can't just trust in government regulators to do the job, as too often their bureaucratic nature has caused them to fail miserably. We can't trust a company benefiting from the new technology because they have a tendency to cut corners to meet their return on investment objectives. Newspapers are incapable of doing the monitoring that is needed. So what's the answer?
Perhaps we need a new type of institution, separate from government, that can set safety standards for dangerous technology while being a champion of free market innovation. For example, the nuclear industry could sponsor a truly independent association that would be granted the power to set and enforce safety standards. Laws would have to be passed to give the new industry-specific institutions power and independence, but it could work. It's needed because soon we'll be struggling with new technologies like human cloning. What about black hole research? I bet there's a scientist right now thinking about how to make a black hole in his lab.