"Nuclear Power Is an Accident Waiting to Happen."
Not necessarily. In half a century of operation, the global nuclear power industry has suffered three catastrophic accidents, all dire enough to make the plant names -- Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima -- synonymous with industrial disaster. But each was a failure of organizational culture as much as technology, and the lessons learned have helped keep their specific mistakes from being repeated.
Shortly after the meltdown at Three Mile Island, the U.S. nuclear industry began an ambitious overhaul of its safety practices. The commercial sector hired nuclear experts from the U.S. Navy, which has the world's longest and least blemished track record for nuclear safety, to overhaul safety standards and create a peer-review inspection body, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. The United States hasn't had a meltdown since at any of its more than 100 reactors.
The Chernobyl accident seven years later was an outlier, inextricable from the pathologies of the late-Soviet-era system in which it took place: an antiquated, kludged-together reactor design without any containment structure to safeguard against worst-case scenarios and hubristic engineers who believed that nothing could go wrong, even as they drove the plant into the danger zone (ironically enough, by dragging out a safety test). Still, the disaster led to a worldwide transformation of safety standards similar to what the United States underwent after Three Mile Island, most notably with the creation of the World Association of Nuclear Operators, which has since inspected almost all 432 commercial reactors in the world.
Most recently, the Fukushima disaster was equal parts freakish bad luck (an earthquake of a huge magnitude, followed by an equally extraordinary tsunami of a size not seen in the region for hundreds of years) and a management culture that kept problems at the plant from being addressed prior to the accident. Fukushima's reactors were 32 to 40 years old, and concerns had been raised about their integrity for nearly as long as they had been up and running. Tokyo Electric Power Company's management covered up such concerns and safety violations for years, executives admitted after the accident. Japan also lacked a strong regulatory agency, as well as the independent nuclear expertise that would have been necessary to staff one.
As in the previous disasters, lessons have already been learned from Fukushima; South Korea's government has ordered the establishment of a strong regulatory agency to avoid a repeat of its neighbor's catastrophe. It would, of course, be best not to make these enormous mistakes in the first place, but we can take some comfort in the fact that so far, we have avoided repeating any of them.
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