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Let’s not build a gas pipeline near a nuclear reactor

To get good public policy, ask the right questions

May 19, 2015 2:00AM ET

Our federal government says that it’s safe to build a giant high-pressure natural gas pipeline 105 feet from the Indian Point nuclear power plant complex along the Hudson River near New York City. But its reasons for making that judgment are secret.

How this decision was reached illustrates a basic public policy problem vexing our nation: We often ask the wrong questions. How we frame public policy questions often shapes the answers. And if we get the answers wrong because we didn't ask the right questions in the first place, death and disease, needless accidents and a less prosperous future will result.

In the case of a pipeline 42 inches in diameter moving natural gas under more than 800 pounds of pressure per square inch, the wrong question is ‘What are the odds that the pipeline will explode right where it passes a nuclear power plant?’

The right question asks whether the pipeline could be laid on an alternate route so that in the extremely unlikely event that it did explode it would pose no danger of a nuclear plant meltdown that would turn metropolitan New York City into a deadly radioactive zone.

Granted, the risk of a properly built modern pipeline exploding is extremely small. And the risk of this pipeline exploding right outside the nuclear power plant with its diesel fuel storage tanks, backup generators and stored nuclear fuel rods is infinitesimal.

But reducing risk to infinitesimal odds and eliminating risk are not the same. Even infinitesimal odds can become reality. Consider the first Boeing 747 to fly paying passengers in 1970.  Boeing risk analysts calculated that the odds that two of its jumbo jets would collide were incredibly small. But just seven years later on a runway in the Canary Islands, a KLM 747 crashed into the very Pan Am 747 that made the first 747 commercial flight in the deadliest aviation accident to date.

One year later, an Air India 747 crashed because of multiple instrument failure. The risk of such a mishap had been calculated at a billion to one, Boeing engineers testified.

We don’t know the odds of the pipeline exploding outside the Indian Point nuclear plant, because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made most of its report secret. After all, we wouldn’t want terrorists to get such information, would we? Of course, the location of the pipeline won’t be a secret, suggesting that we are not asking the right questions about what information should be kept secret (if it can be) and what should be the subject of robust debate.

Similar examples of not asking the right questions abound. Consider the morning after the fatal Amtrak crash last week in North Philadelphia. Despite years of warnings that insufficient funds were being spent on railroad safety, the House of Representatives voted to cut the Amtrak budget.

Asking the right public-policy questions is essential to our long-term economic and social well-being.

The question being asked by House Republicans was “How much can we reduce current federal spending?” It was not “How we can move people safely and efficiently up and down the Boston-Washington corridor where a fifth of Americans live and work?” Nor was it about the long-term economic and social costs of cutting such transportation spending.

How about the way we frame questions about our crumbling physical infrastructure — antiquated bridges, potholed interstate highways, leaking water mains and waterways filling with silt?  The questions typically raised in congressional and legislative hearings as well as campaign debates is “How do we relieve taxpayers of these burdens?” Many lawmakers say the answer is that we simply cannot afford to build new infrastructure or to maintain the existing public furniture.

The right questions are: “How do we finance the bridges, roads, water systems and canals needed to move people, goods and equipment around the country efficiently? How much are we wasting on damage to vehicles from crashes caused by potholes to excessive numbers of wheel alignments? Would building new rail lines improve economic efficiency and reduce highway congestion?”

Questions that focus narrowly on what will make us better off today, but at the expense of our long-term interests, are typically wrong questions.

Such short-term thinking undermines the investment in scientific research responsible for the country’s remarkable economic success in the postwar era. Think about how much of our economy today is tied to physics, mathematics, chemistry and metallurgy. Taxpayers financed major advances in all of those fields. Basic research has no immediate commercial application; it depends on government spending.

Today we are reaping the benefits of research done in the last century in physics, mathematics and chemistry. We have cell phones, the Internet and satellites in low Earth orbit that enable automobile navigation systems, all because of taxpayer investments made when this country was not nearly as rich as today.

We fly about the world in jetliners whose engines often remain on the wing until the plane is worn out. The metals in jet engines are the product of massive taxpayer investments, primarily to advance military aircraft.

Until the 1970s newspapers and the old telephone yellow pages were full of ads for shops that would swap out your car engine for a new one in a matter of hours. Cars required frequent tune-ups and tires had to be recapped every 8,000 miles or so. Engines often threw a rod, a phrase unknown to those under 50 today.

Thanks to taxpayer investments in materials science, we have automobile engines that can last hundreds of thousands of miles without a tune-up and tires that may go more than 80,000 miles.

The lesson from U.S. history is clear: Asking the right public-policy questions is essential to our long-term economic and social well-being. If we heed this lesson, we will ask how far a high-pressure natural gas line should be located away from a nuclear power plant to eliminate all risk of a nuclear disaster to the New York metropolitan area. The alternative is folly.

David Cay Johnston, an investigative reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize while at The New York Times, teaches business, tax and property law of the ancient world at the Syracuse University College of Law. He is the best-selling author of “Perfectly Legal,” “Free Lunch” and “The Fine Print” and the editor of the new anthology “Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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