Nuclear Accidents: Preventable 'Man-Made' Disasters

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A report released by the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission has concluded that the Japanese nuclear accident and meltdown last year could and should have been prevented.

The exhaustive 641-page report was sharply critical of the Japanese government and plant operator’s claims that the accident was the unavoidable result of an unpredictable double-disaster of a severe earthquake followed by a tsunami. In fact, the report noted that given the high number of earthquakes in Japan (and the well-known association of tsunamis with earthquakes), much more could have been done. Basic safety measures were ignored, backup systems were not implemented and government regulators who were charged with enforcing safety standards did not follow through.

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Fukushima is the second preventable nuclear crisis in history. Though sometimes considered a technological failure, the nuclear meltdown at Russia’s Chernobyl power plant was a man-made disaster caused by human error. In 1986, a group of scientists intentionally deactivated several safety systems in order to test a cooling system at reactor 4. The experiment failed, leading to the worst nuclear accident of all time. There are several psychological and social factors common to both Chernobyl and Fukushima.

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Underestimating Risk

In both nuclear accidents, the public and those running the reactors were assured that the risk of any accident — much less a full-fledged core meltdown — was so remote that it need not be of concern.

As a New York Times story noted, “Tepco [the plant’s operator] has contended that the plant withstood the earthquake that rocked eastern Japan, instead placing blame for the disaster on what some experts have called a ‘once in a millennium’ tsunami that followed. Such a rare calamity was beyond the scope of contingency planning, Tepco executives have suggested, and was unlikely to pose a threat to Japan’s other nuclear reactors in the foreseeable future.”

By portraying the risk of accident as unimaginably rare (“once in a millennium”), Tepco officials overstated its safety. As Zhores Medvedev notes in his book The Legacy of Chernobyl (1990, W.W. Norton), the same minute risk mentality pervaded the culture at Chernobyl; one plant operator said that “in the classrooms of their institutions [nuclear reactor technician students] had beaten into their heads: a reactor cannot explode…. And it was only in October 1986 that the regulations were changed to include the grim warning: ‘When there are fewer than 30 [nuclear reaction dampening] rods the reactor goes into a situation of nuclear danger.’”

The irony is that in both cases the risk of accident actually was very remote — assuming that established safety protocols were followed.

Culture of Complacency

In both nuclear accidents there was an entrenched culture of complacency. Corners were often cut and safety procedures ignored. At Chernobyl the danger of a nuclear meltdown was systematically downplayed and rules became lax. Igor Kazachkov, one of the shift operators at Chernobyl, stated “We didn’t have any foolproof safeguards against this particular thing happening… There are lots of safeguards but nothing that controls the number of rods. We have often had less than the required number of rods [controlling the reaction] and nothing happened. No explosion, everything proceeded normally.”

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In other words, the plant had operated safely and things turned out okay when safety rules were ignored, so operators became complacent. This is human nature, and can be seen in the psychology of drunk drivers who think, “Well, the last few times I drove home safely, so I can do it again.” Getting away with breaking the rules — especially repeatedly — makes the action seem less dangerous.

The Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation report also contained pointed criticism of the Japanese culture and its role in creating the disaster and failing to mitigate its aftermath. Kiyoshi Kurokawa, chairman of the commission, stated that “What must be admitted — very painfully — is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity.” The problem was so pervasive, Kurokawa noted, that “Had other Japanese been in the shoes of those who bear responsibility for this accident, the result may well have been the same.”

After each high profile accident there are reports and investigations calling for changes to be implemented to make sure it “never happens again.” The nuclear power industry did not learn lessons from Chernobyl, and likely will not learn lessons from Fukushima. There will be future nuclear accidents of this scale–and probably worse. Not because the technology isn't improving, for it surely is, but because humans are the weak link, and human nature will continue to endanger us all.

Photo: The underground water storage tank installation at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station as seen on June 18, 2012. Credit: Tepco / Jana Press

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