Getting serious about regulation

Robert Reich

Kai Ryssdal: The Food and Drug Administration has spoken up on the nuclear crisis in Japan. Dairy products and produce from the area around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant aren't allowed into the U.S. anymore.

Other foods from Japan aren't affected by the ban. The FDA says it's being prudent in the interests of consumer safety.

Today in our coverage of the disaster, commentator Robert Reich weighs in on the culture of American regulations.

Robert Reich: How much should we be prepared to pay for safety?

Years ago, GE marketed the reactors used in Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant as cheaper to build than other reactors because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure. American safety officials have long thought the smaller design to be more vulnerable to explosion and rupture in emergencies than competing ones. By the way, the same design is used in 23 American nuclear reactors at 16 plants.

It's not the only example. The national commission appointed to investigate the BP oil spill last April found that BP failed to adequately supervise Halliburton Company's work on installing the well, even though BP knew Halliburton lacked experience. Massey Energy -- owner of the West Virginia coal mine that exploded last spring, killing 29 miners -- refused to spend money needed to ensure its mines were safe. And so on.

Now don't get me wrong. No company can be expected to build a nuclear reactor, oil well, coal mine, or anything else that's 100 percent safe under all circumstances. The costs would be prohibitive. It's unreasonable to expect corporations to totally guard against small chances of every potential accident.

Inevitably there's a trade-off. Reasonable precaution means spending as much on safety as the probability of a particular disaster occurring. And then multiplying by its likely harm to human beings and the environment if it does occur.

The problem is, profit-making corporations have every incentive to underestimate these probabilities and lowball the likely harms, which is why it's necessary to have such things as regulations, and why regulators need to have enough resources to enforce them. And it's why recent proposals in Congress to cut the budgets of regulatory agencies charged with protecting the public's safety are wrong-headed.

Those who argue that regulations kill jobs ignore an important fact: Lack of adequate regulation kills people.

Ryssdal: Robert Reich was Secretary of Labor for President Clinton. His most recent book is called "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." Our future includes David Frum. Send us your comments -- click on the contact link.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.


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