I applaud the actions of Southwest Airlines in light of the revelation of possible cracks in more planes in their fleet. The recognize that they missed a problem, and took the steps to prevent a situation where the risk to a small number of people was slightly elevated. Southwest had to admit that they did not do enough to address the cracking issues before this incident, and they will pay a heavy financial cost to protect the public. This is something that we have seen time and again in the commercial aviation industry. They may not be perfect, but they have shown the willingness to admit mistakes and correct them before risking safety again whenever a substantial incident occurs to put the focus on a problem. The rather appalling contrast to this has been the nuclear industry.
If not for public outcry and government action, it is a certainty that we would have seen far more frequent accidents with far graver consequences. The regulations that DO exist in Japan, the United States, and elsewhere have been fought tooth and nail by the nuclear establishment and their well-paid lobbyists and corporate lawyers who try to fend-off any new safety programs. At the same time the public relations flacks brag about those same safety systems that were imposed by law, as if it was their idea all along, even as they do the minimum that they legally can to protect the public. With a continual over-confidence in their own expertise, some engineers are loath to admit that they cannot anticipate every problem, or manage every crisis. I would argue that humankind is not yet ready to manage something as complex as a nuclear power plant and the countless critically interdependent systems that must be maintained. It is like juggling running chainsaws with a group of little children gathered close around your feet to watch the show. The needed level of safety is not realistic even if money was no object... but of course we all know that money is a very BIG object. Money makes the world go 'round, money can make good people do bad things, and smart people do stupid things.
The money people, who are focused on the bottom line of nuclear energy rather than on your safety or mine, are the real decision makers. They decide if the cheaper concrete will be fine, even if the materials engineers say it might not be. At the two Nuke plants within 50 miles of my Boston home the money guys decided that the cheaper 4-hour backup batteries were fine (that's half the size of the inadequate 8-hour batteries that TEPCO relied on in Japan, and which failed long before ). Thousands of corners like these are cut at plants in your area, and everywhere that uses nuclear power. In the airline industry such blatant disregard for safety just wouldn't fly--nobody would buy a ticket.
So what is the difference between air travel and nuclear power where protecting public safety are concerned? The answer is that there are some differences that matter in terms of explaining why nukes get held to a lower standard, but nothing at all that would justify the situation.
Air crashes are sudden and their victims easy to see. Nuclear energy accidents typically unfold slowly, release invisible hazards, harm health over time, and are not fully understood until years later. In past accidents it was only possible to properly estimate the quantity of radioactive pollution released years after the accident, when humans could finally get close enough to the reactors to investigate. Disease and death clusters are explained away as anything else but radiation. Humans simply tend to react very differently to dangers depending on how they are revealed, and if it is possible to deny them to others or to ourselves. But it all comes back to the money again, and the differences between the way that we buy electricity and how we pay for air travel. Southwest needs to demonstrate their safety to the customer every day or they will not sell tickets. Electric utilities have a far more captive customer base, and just need to keep a total sea-change in attitudes from happening overnight.
If an electric customer were able to choose what power they buy, from what source, and at what price on an ongoing basis the way one shops for airline tickets, then things would be very different. As it stands today, there are very limited choices available to the electric consumer, with a few exceptions at the margins such as alternative off-grid power and new net-metering programs. For most consumers the only choice is what day to pay their bill. If nuclear power plants needed to sell their power to consumers with choices, then you'd better believe that the industry would have a new attitude about safety, and the utilities would rush to purchase new clean energy generating capacity before they lost every customer to someone else who would deliver clean power.