THE SEARCH has been abandoned for any further survivors of the capsized oil platform in the North Sea, and it seems clear that more than 100 men have been lost. The Norwegian government has established a commission of inquiry. There will certainly be reviews and reappraisals of the design of semi-submersible rigs. Safety standards in the North Sea will be reviewed and probably tightened. But you will notice that no one has suggested a moratorium on drilling, or a ban on offshore oil exploration.
There are certain parallels between this disaster and the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island a year ago. Both involved failures of equipment. Both failures were supposed to be impossible. The principal difference is, of course, that nobody got hurt at Three Mile Island. The health effects of escaped radiation there seem likely to prove immeasurably small. Statisticians will be quarreling about the point for years to come. There won't be any question about the number of deaths last week in the North Sea.
It is a plain fact that people react with sharp anxiety to one kind of accident, and accept the other as unavoidable in a hazardous business. Perhaps the explanation is that most people fear radiation but know that they will never work on oil rigs. Perhaps the explanation is also that people accept familiar dangers more easily than the strange and new.
The lesson both of these accidents, last year's in Pennsylvania and this year's in the North Sea, is what energy cannot be produced without some degree of risk. Intelligent management can keep the risk down, but cannot reduce it to zero. The search for oil is moving steadily into deeper and colder water. With all the care in the world, the risks will inevitably rise.
Energy policy is largely a matter of weighing costs and risks. The Norwegian and British governments will persevere in producing the North Sea's oil, despite this catastrophe, because the returns justify even these demonstrated dangers. Britain, which is producing on a faster schedule than Norway, expects the flow of its oil to peak in the middle 1980s and then begin dropping. The British government is now actively considering a proposal to use some of this decade's oil earnings to build the nuclear power plants that could replace the depleted oil fields in the years beyond.
The capsized rig suggests that a future dependence on nuclear power will not necessarily be less safe than the present dependence on oil.