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The Gender of Nuclear Disaster

Is it that men tend to engage in reckless behavior while women are more cautious in the face of risk? A new poll shows that women in the U.S. are much less inclined than men to build new nuclear facilities in the country in the wake of the current Japanese crisis.

By Robert Drago

Why would someone build six nuclear reactors 150 miles away from the center of metropolitan Tokyo, putting more than 30 million people in harm’s way?

I could be wrong, but doubt that women were responsible for the decision to locate the reactors in Fukushima. I do not think women are inherently smarter or more responsible than men, but you have to wonder about an apparently male love of reckless behavior when, days after the nuclear disaster began unfolding in Japan (Tuesday the 15th to be precise), polling revealed that a solid majority of American men favored, and a solid majority of American women opposed, construction of new nuclear power plants in the United States.

We could search far and wide for explanations, but the simplest and most obvious is provided by the example of Florence Nightingale. In case you do not know, the barrage of media messages asking us to help victims of the earthquake, tsunami, and developing nuclear disaster in Japan by donating to the Red Cross, involve an organization inspired by Florence Nightingale’s efforts to alleviate the pain and suffering of wounded soldiers in the Crimean War of the 1850’s (the organization was in fact founded by a man). She formalized what was and is often true in modern and not-so-modern societies: Men engage in reckless behavior and women clean up the human wreckage that results.

Consider any vulnerable population in the U.S. today – whether it is infants and children, adults with disabilities, or the elderly who are frail – and you will find women performing most of the carework for these populations. And when anyone performs this work, and carries that level of responsibility, they tend to become a little more responsible in terms of policy options that might put more people at risk for needing care, for being hurt.

I am not engaging in male-bashing here. Today’s American men are doing far more child care and other carework than their forefathers did. I know many young men who are proud of the fact that they took paternity leave when a child was born, and a growing though still small number of dads share child and elder care and housework equally with the women who are their partners. But that is not typical. Once it is, I suspect that the idea of building new nuclear power facilities will strike most men the same way it strikes me – as an act of lunacy.

Robert Drago is Director of Research at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

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