March 17, 2011

The Perfectly Safe Nuclear Reactor: Always Just Around the Corner

From Hugh Gusterson, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:
We have now had four grave nuclear reactor accidents: Windscale in Britain in 1957 (the one that is never mentioned), Three Mile Island in the United States in 1979, Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in 1986, and now Fukushima. Each accident was unique, and each was supposed to be impossible. Nuclear engineers have learned from each accident how to improve reactor design so as to diminish the likelihood of that particular accident repeating itself but, as Donald Rumsfeld famously reminded us, there are always "unknown unknowns," and so each accident has been succeeded by another, unwinding in a way that was not foreseen. The designers of the reactors at Fukushima did not anticipate that the tsunami generated by an earthquake would disable the backup systems that were supposed to stabilize the reactor after the earthquake.

And presumably there are other complicated technological scenarios that we have not foreseen, earthquake faults that are undetected or underestimated, and terrorists hatching plans for mayhem as yet unknown. Not to mention regulators who place too much trust in those they regulate.

Thus it is hard to resist the conclusion reached by sociologist Charles Perrow in his book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies: Nuclear reactors are such inherently complex, tightly coupled systems that, in rare, emergency situations, cascading interactions will unfold very rapidly in such a way that human operators will be unable to predict and master them. To this anthropologist, then, the lesson of Fukushima is not that we now know what we need to know to design the perfectly safe reactor, but that the perfectly safe reactor is always just around the corner. It is technoscientific hubris to think otherwise.

This leaves us with a choice between walking back from a technology that we decide is too dangerous or normalizing the risks of nuclear energy and accepting that an occasional Fukushima is the price we have to pay for a world with less carbon dioxide. It is wishful thinking to believe there is a third choice of nuclear energy without nuclear accidents.

It is unlikely that all countries will make the same choice here. We are probably moving toward a post-Fukushima world in which some countries will abjure nuclear energy while others expand it. Countries with other energy options, strong democratic structures, and powerful environmental movements will probably de-emphasize, and maybe eventually renounce, nuclear energy. Switzerland has already suspended plans to build new reactors, and Germany's Angela Merkel, responding to large antinuclear protests, announced plans to close seven reactors pending further evaluation of their safety and to reconsider plans to extend the lives of Germany's oldest reactors.

In the meantime, countries with weak environmental movements and weak regulatory norms seem to be proceeding as if nothing has happened. As the Fukushima nuclear disaster unfolded, Turkey announced plans to go ahead with two reactors, and we can surely expect China, Russia, and India to do the same.

And what of the United States? Will it be like Germany and Switzerland, or like Turkey and China? A good way to think through this question is to look at how the United States responded to its last meltdown -- the meltdown of its banking system in 2008. To prevent a future recurrence of this disaster, the US government should have broken up banks that were "too big to fail," restored the Glass-Steagall Act's prohibitions on the commingling of investment and depository banks, and moved aggressively to regulate credit default swaps and financial derivatives. It did none of these things because the banks did not want it to, and the banks now run the show.

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