Avoiding the Next Catastrophe

The recent season of powerful hurricanes striking the United States raised concerns once again about operating nuclear reactors in places that are likely to be struck by natural and human-caused disasters, or by deliberate sabotage.
These concerns have been thoroughly covered by Charles Perrow in his books Normal Accidents: Living With High-Risk Technologies (1999) and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (2007). In these books he discussed all high-risk technologies and the dangers they pose due the inability of human institutions to defend them from profit-seeking, human error and human malice. In the latter book he singled out nuclear power plants as having more “lethal potential” than any other dangerous technology:

Nuclear power plants concentrate more lethal potential than anything else in our society. They are vulnerable to natural disasters. There have been emergency shut downs in the face of hurricanes, for example, though no storms or floods have as yet disabled a plant's external power supply and its backup power generators. Some plants sit on earthquake faults... they are extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks and to organizational failures. Their electricity is considerably more expensive than alternative means of generation, and while they pollute far less (only in the short run; in the long run of thousands of years, their wastes pollute far more if they are not contained) and release no carbon dioxide, the current difference between oil and coal-fired plants and nuclear plants in this respect could be greatly reduced if currently available emission reductions were required of fossil fuel plants. And, of course, the federal government invests only a trifling amount in research on solar and wind power and energy conservation, while it continues to handsomely fund nuclear power research. This is an example of increasing our vulnerability to natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters. By supporting pollution reduction from fossil fuel plants, alternative energy sources, and energy conservation, we could phase out our vulnerable nuclear plants in a decade or so.[1]

It is notable that Charles Perrow’s books were written before the triple meltdown and spent fuel pool fire at Fukushima Dai-ichi, and before the recent seasons of intense forest fires, floods and hurricanes that have struck close to nuclear reactors in various parts of the world.

After the Fukushima Dai-ichi catastrophe the nuclear industry has tried hard to say the glass is half full, that lessons have been learned and now we know how to run nuclear power plants safely. However, other people, interested but disinterested[2] in the nuclear industry, draw different lessons and different conclusions. Lists like the one below have circulated on social media, but this version is one I have added to with a few extra points.

Lessons Learned from the Meltdown in Three Nuclear Reactors at Fukushima Dai-ichi
  1. Don’t place nuclear reactors next to one another in multi-reactor complexes.
  2. Don’t leave spent nuclear fuel near reactors, especially if it is in pools of water and not in dry cask storage.
  3. You need at least two separate access routes.
  4. You need back-up control rooms in distant bunkers.
  5. You need more on-site and off-site back-up power.
  6. You need better evacuation plans for a larger area, but evacuation may not even be possible, and even if it is carried out, it will victimize the weakest people in society.
  7. Evacuation plans and drills may at best be a deceptive public relations stunt.
  8. The social bonds of the affected communities will be shattered forever.
  9. By the time you know that people in the area need potassium iodide pills, it will be too late. They will have already been exposed.
  10. You need sensors and cameras that work post-accident.
  11. You need staff willing to die for their families and communities.
  12. You need massive reserves to pay compensation, if you care about fair compensation for the people affected.
  13. You need an honest assessment of the costs and risks.
  14. You need to resolve the contradictions inherent in allowing a profit-seeking enterprise to operate nuclear reactors. Regulatory systems will tend toward being corrupted and complacent, aligned with the interests of the corporations.
  15. The cost of making nuclear energy safe make it more expensive than alternative forms of generating electricity.
It has become painfully obvious that many of these lessons have not been learned, even in Japan. For example, TEPCO is now seeking permission to restart its multi-reactor complex in Kashiwazaki, Niigata. The national regulator has given them approval, but the prefectural government has not. It remains to be seen whether a pliable governor can be installed in future prefectural elections.
Many people have learned lessons quite different from those of the nuclear industry. Those who assess this situation impartially realize the futility of trying to make nuclear energy safe. When an activity requires too many precautionary counter-measures, sensible people just give it up. To operate nuclear reactors, too many inspections, back-up procedures and counter-measures are needed. In fact, the back-up procedures require back-up procedures. We need a regulatory agency for the regulatory agency. Producing energy should be simple. Boil some water. Use the steam pressure to spin a turbine. Send the electricity down a wire.
Imagine if riding a bicycle were suddenly complicated by numerous weaknesses in the human and the machine that made cycling possible. The rider is prone to failure of his sensory organs, so he needs backup systems like cameras and motion sensors. The brake cables are prone to catastrophic failure, but replacing them constantly is too expensive. The frame becomes embrittled after several years of usage, but the frame is much more expensive than brake cables. The tires get punctured easily. Now imagine that every time a serious bicycle accident occurs, deadly particles spread over a wide area, requiring a temporary evacuation of all of it and permanent evacuation of a part of it. We could require all riders to buy insurance, and we could mandate frequent inspections of the machines and the riders’ physical and mental fitness, but sensible people would see that the cost of ensuring safety would quickly outweigh the benefits of cycling. And no matter how thorough our efforts, the risk of accident would never be totally eliminated. It is likely we would come to the sensible conclusion that cycling, despite its joys and conveniences, is too dangerous, and the effort to make it safe is exhausting and ultimately futile.


[1] Charles Perrow, The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters (Princeton University Press, 2007), 173.

[2] I use the word with the variant meaning defined thus by the Merriam-Webster dictionary: Free from selfish motive or interest, unbiased. The meaning is illustrated with a quote of G.M. Trevelyan: “Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the lifeblood of real civilization.”

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