Nuclear Safety After Japan

The crisis at the Fukushima plant has given officials plenty to think about. But it shouldn’t be the end of nuclear energy.

Every day since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami wrought havoc on Japan, reports and speculation have been pouring in about the immediate and long-term effects this disaster will have on nuclear energy. Nearly every nation that is currently operating nuclear power plants has ordered a review of their safety regulations and procedures. There’s more than a little caution in the air.

And there’s nothing wrong with this. But we should also be careful before predicting the demise of nuclear power. I warned only a few weeks ago that the path of nuclear energy must be treaded firmly, but cautiously, since the psychological impact of any mishap or accident at a nuclear site can quickly spin out of control and do lasting damage.

Complacency is simply unacceptable as far as nuclear safety is concerned. But we must also remember that it was the unprecedented fury of nature that has caused such havoc this time.

Every analysis conducted on this crisis has underscored that the emergency at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors was the result of a series of accumulative factors—one of the biggest earthquakes in history, a large number of major aftershocks and a huge tsunami. It was under the relentless onslaught of this unique combination of factors that the redundancies in the systems of electrical power supply, cooling systems and control and instrumentation gradually broke down.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

No one, least of all nuclear industry officials, have tried to dismiss the reality that nuclear fission is a complex and complicated technological process that involves genuine risks. In fact, all the processes involved in reactor siting, design, construction, operation and decommissioning are conducted on the basis of elaborately drawn-up best practice and under the watchful eye of national and international regulatory agencies. Every nuclear mishap has led to better and more stringent safety requirements. As I’ve said before, several new design features, such as the double containment for the reactor, the core catcher and passive safety features, have derived from previous accidents. 

Similarly, better emergency planning, independent peer reviews, feedback over operating experiences at reactors worldwide aimed at encouraging information sharing and the evolution among plant owners and management of a proper safety culture are all the result of years of operating experience.

There will undoubtedly be a number of lessons from what has happened at the Fukushima plant, and the whole world is now watching. The acts of omission as well as commission of the nuclear designers, constructors and operators will all be analyzed to allow future action plans to be developed.

But in the meantime, all involved should remember that the best principle for the nuclear industry to follow is that achieving unimpeachable safety standards is a continuous journey, not a destination.