Japan's nuclear disaster: Are we overconfident in the safety of U.S. nuclear plants?

Science, technology, and life.
April 1 2011 7:28 AM

Shaken to the Core

I'll feel safer about nuclear power when the industry looks more shaken by what happened in Japan.

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When Jaczko was asked about spent nuclear fuel, he noted that the NRC had "recently affirmed a decision we've made over the years that we call our waste confidence decision. … We believe for at least 100 years, that fuel can be stored with very little impacts to health and safety or to the environment." As to whether the fuel should be stored in dry casks or pools, he told the senators, "The information we have right now shows that both of these methodologies are equally safe for a very long period of time." But Ernest Moniz, an MIT expert on nuclear energy, was more candid about these calculations. "We think that there is a good case to be made for the integrity of 100-year storage," Moniz testified. "But the reality is, it's based upon an extraordinarily skimpy database. "

This is the core of nuclear overconfidence: drawing rosy projections from "information" and "methodologies" that were based on very little data and have now been called into question by the data from Fukushima: earthquake, tsunami, hydrogen explosions, cracked storage pools, radiation leakage. Take it from me: Two days into the Japan crisis, when the reactor cores appeared undamaged, I went beyond the industry's worldwide safety record and said the Daiichi plant had survived everything that could have gone wrong. Then more things went wrong.

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Look at the global safety report I cited, which was issued last year by the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The report correctly notes that historically, nuclear power has been far safer than fossil fuels. But it also projects the nuclear industry's future safety based on "probabilistic safety assessment." The report calls PSA a "systematic and comprehensive technique to evaluate risks associated with complex systems such as nuclear power plants." The evaluation is based on 1) "the initiating faults and sequences of events that could lead to core damage," 2) the "consequences of core damage," and 3) "how likely are these events to occur." According to the PSA evaluation, a reactor like the one at Fukushima might suffer core damage every 800 to 1,000 years.

Less than a year later, Fukushima suffered core damage.

I'm not saying we can't trust nuclear power. I'm saying our trust depends on rigorous study of nasty surprises. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chaired Wednesday's hearing, got it right when she called for "rethinking," "self-reassessment," and accident response systems agile enough to address "scenarios we never imagined." Jaczko, too, got it right when he defined the NRC as a "learning organization" committed to "continuous improvement." He spoke of preparing nuclear plants for "beyond-design-basis accidents"—scenarios unaccounted for in the plants' highly touted construction plans. And Levis, in his concluding remarks, found the right tone of humility. "What is it that we don't know?" he asked. "If the heat sink is lost, what would you do? If you lost emergency A/C power, what would you do? We ask ourselves continually those what-if questions, and 'What have we missed here?' "

Keep asking those questions, and we'll all feel safer.

(My recommended reading: Amory Lovins at National Geographic's Great Energy Challenge  warns that U.S. regulation of nuclear power " is not clearly better than Japanese regulation, nor more transparent." Greenpeace tells BoingBoing that the 20-kilometer evacuation zone around Daiichi " doesn't take into account pockets of high radioactivity elsewhere." John Boyd at IEEE Spectrum says a robot will spray dust-controlling resin on the plant's debris. Darren Quick at Gizmag reports that QinetiQ is sending Japan kits that " convert standard Bobcat loaders into unmanned vehicles" in 15 minutes. Toni Johnson at CFR says Japanese utilities will replace their lost nuclear power with oil, coal, and liquefied natural gas. The Atlantic reports that since Fukushima, " a growing number of Iranian opinion makers" have come out against the country's nuclear program on safety and economic grounds.)

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