Sustainable Energy

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).

This story is part of our July/August 2011 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

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.

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Plus.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

You've read of free articles this month.