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Nuclear Lessons

The Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents were failures of culture as well as technology.

I first saw the Chernobyl “sarcophagus” while driving in the exclusion zone on a bright spring day in May 1997. The shattered plant was an eerie, captivating presence (see “Nuclear Cleanup”), and it was chilling to spend a few days in the control room of reactor 3 (which was then still operating)—an exact double of the exploded reactor 4. The fallout from that 1986 tragedy spread so far from the plant as to inspire the conclusion that a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. No other industrial site has spread such devastation to the environment and the lives of so many millions of people.

Many credible studies have concluded that Chernobyl’s disaster was caused by the safety culture in the Soviet nuclear industry at the time of the accident. A plant that fosters positive attitudes and practices with respect to safety encourages employees to ask questions and to apply a rigorous and prudent approach to all aspects of their job. It promotes open communication between line workers and middle and upper management. The Soviet safety culture was deficient in these respects, allowing dangerous risks to be taken.

My 25 years of research on nuclear safety in the United States, Japan, and elsewhere lead me to believe that a similar cultural failing lies behind the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis. Of course, in the disaster’s wake, we should be concerned with the risks that major earthquakes and tsunamis pose to nuclear power plants anywhere. Yet it seems that in this case, the natural hazards acted as a trigger for the ensuing man-made disaster, which still affects many hundreds of thousands of people today. The root causes are lax or nonexistent regulatory oversight in Japan and an ineffective safety culture at the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).

Japan’s nuclear regulator has never been independent from the industry or from the powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, which promotes nuclear power. TEPCO has a history of disregard for safety and had recently released an error-prone assessment of tsunami hazards at ­Fukushima that significantly underestimated the risks.

For the foreseeable future, despite increasing levels of computerization and automation, human operators will remain in charge of day-to-day control, monitoring, and maintenance at nuclear plants. We should learn from Chernobyl and ­Fukushima that this global industry must strive for higher universal safety standards and closer coöperation among its members and regulators. The safety of these plants transcends national borders and has never been more important in the eyes of the public than it is today. We can do better than Chernobyl or Fukushima.

Najmedin Meshkati is aN Engineering professor at the University of Southern California and has inspected nuclear plants around the world in the course of research into the industry’s safety.

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