Last week we mentioned that there are some… problems with the way the law is handled in The Dark Knight Rises. Specifically, the corporate angle doesn’t make any sense, and there are some real unresolved issues pertaining to Bane’s occupation of Gotham.
This time, we’re going to look at something mentioned by a few commenters, i.e., how the heck did Wayne Industries build a fusion reactor immediately below Gotham City?
I. Nuclear Regulation
Nuclear energy is, as many have pointed out, something in which the government takes a bit of an interest. So, for example, when a Boy Scout in Michigan got most of the way towards a functioning breeder reactor, the FBI, the EPA, and the local police were not amused. While Chicago Pile-1, the history’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, was within the Chicago city limits, but it was (1) part of a secret US government project (2) during wartime and (3) in 1942. You probably couldn’t get away with that sort of thing nowadays.
Today, we’ve got a slew of federal agencies that will want a piece of this pie. The Department of Energy‘s Office of Nuclear Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are the main players on the civilian side of things—there will be state agencies too—but the Pentagon might also want in, particularly after Pavel published his paper. Want to do fusion research? Be prepared to interface with at least half a dozen agencies. And that’s not even touching the zoning issues. “Experimental fusion reactor facility” probably doesn’t count as a “permitted use” or even a “conditional use.”
And even if they were to permit it, they wouldn’t approve it there. Livermore, a research facility that does fusion research among other things, is on the outskirts of Livermore, California, itself not exactly a bustling metropolis. The US ITER facility is at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, i.e., the boonies. The main ITER reactor is in rural France. None of these are located under major cities. That’s just not how we do things.
The point here isn’t that Wayne Enterprises couldn’t possibly have gotten approval for that. It’s possible that they could have. The NRC in particular is frequently accused of regulatory capture, i.e., the phenomenon when a regulatory agency seems to serve the interests of the industry it’s regulating more than acting as some kind of watchdog. Similar accusations are made of pretty much all the federal agencies. So it’s plausible that a player as big as Wayne Enterprises could get this sort of thing approved. But it couldn’t get it approved without anyone knowing about it. Experimental fusion research? Sure. Secret experimental fusion research? No. The proceedings of regulatory agencies are generally, by statute, a matter of public record. So as soon as Wayne Enterprises starts to get the approval for this sort of thing, everyone is going to know about it. And not just in general terms either. Part of the regulatory approval is going to involve site approval, and you can bet that’s going to be a matter of public record.
II. Hiding Massive Corporate Expenditures
But now we get into another problem. “If you funnel your entire R&D budget into a fusion project you mothball, your company is unlikely to thrive,” says Fox to Wayne at one point. This is true. What’s also true is that if you do that, the odds of no one knowing where the money was going is vanishingly small. We’re not just talking about a paper trail here. Miranda Tate, a member of Wayne Enterprises’ board, was also involved in the clean energy project in question. There’s implication that it was actually her project to start with, and that Wayne Enterprises either acquired or invested in it. The idea that she would have no idea about the state of the project given her corporate position is frankly unbelievable. We’re talking about the expenditure of hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars. That wasn’t all on materials. It was on engineers’ and scientists’ salaries too. You can’t employ hundreds or thousands of people to do much of anything in corporate America without the board of directors knowing about it, or even some details leaking to the public (just ask Apple). Indeed, many corporate directors have significant authority to requisition corporate records. It’s part of their job: they have a duty to the shareholders to know what’s going on in their companies. So the proposition that Wayne Enterprises can come up with an all-but-functional reactor and Tate wouldn’t even know where it is just doesn’t fly.
The worst of it is that the movie knows this. Even in The Dark Knight, we saw that a halfway-decent audit would lead to the discovery of the Batman project. But most of that stuff doesn’t involve the most highly regulated industry in the country. If Wayne Enterprises can’t keep Batman a secret for even a few months, how is it supposed to keep something this big a secret for what must have been several years?
We’ll let others deal with the physics of the thing. The way the reactor is portrayed simply doesn’t fly with the way the law works, even in terms of the existing movies. There’s no way Wayne Enterprises could keep something like this secret. Getting approval would mean necessarily going public. But even if they just tried to build it in secret, the idea that a member of the board of directors who actively wants to know about the project wouldn’t be able to figure out where the money was going is completely implausible.