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Zero Margin for Error

Even with the plentiful backup systems in place at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, disaster prevailed.

May 2011

By Elizabeth Kolbert

Several years ago, I spent a day at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, in Buchanan, New York. This was not long after September 11, and the possibility of nuclear disaster was very much on people's minds. I spent the morning with the plant's director of emergency programs, whose message, evidently honed over many such meetings, was that Indian Point posed no risk whatsoever to the hundreds of thousands of people who live within 10 miles of it, or to the 20 million who live within 50. After lunch, I went to visit the control room simulator, where trainees are taught how to operate a reactor. I arrived in the middle of an exercise that involved eight simultaneous malfunctions. Two young men were trying to keep the reactor core from overheating as one system failed after another. Even though the crisis was imaginary, the look of panic on their faces struck me as entirely genuine.

Zero Margin for Error
Illustration by Ed Nacional
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I have often thought of those panic-stricken young men in the weeks since the earthquake that set off the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan. Nuclear power plants are designed according to the principle of “defense in depth”: if one critical safety system fails, another one is supposed to kick in, and if the second also fails, then a third should be activated. But if all three—or four, or eight—fail simultaneously, then crises becomes virtually unavoidable. This is what happened at the Fukushima plant: The plant lost its primary source of power (electricity from the grid) and also its secondary source (a set of diesel generators) and then, finally, its tertiary source (backup battery power). The cooling systems failed, the operators lost control of the plant, and the Japanese—and to a certain extent everyone else in the world—are now dealing with the consequences. As of this writing, radiation levels inside four of the reactor buildings are so high that workers cannot even enter them to fully assess the damage. The owner of the plant, Tokyo Electric Power Company, has said that it will take six months, and possibly longer, to achieve what's known as a “cold shutdown” of the reactors, which would bring core temperatures down to the point where cooling water would no longer boil away. It is likely to take years, indeed probably decades, to clean up the site.

What is to be learned from all this? Long before the high-level reports on the crisis are written—or even commissioned—the basic lessons of the disaster are already clear, just as they were after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Nuclear power plants can be made safer than they are. For example, many of the problems at the Fukushima plant can be traced to the way spent fuel was being stored. Spent fuel is being stored the same way at the 104 nuclear plants in the United States, the only difference being that here the conditions are even riskier.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) should demand that plant operators switch to new, less dangerous storage methods. Similarly, it should revise its safety system requirements and demand that better backup power supplies be available. Chances are, however, that it won't. The NRC is a classic victim of what's known in Washington as “regulatory capture.” The body that was set up to oversee the nuclear industry is now, in effect, being run by it. As Frank von Hippel, a nuclear physicist at Princeton and cochairman of the International Panel on Fissile Materials, observed recently in the New York Times, “It has become customary for administrations not to nominate, and the Senate not to confirm, commissioners whom the industry regards as ‘anti-nuclear'—which includes anyone who has expressed any criticism whatsoever of industry practices.”

The second (even scarier) lesson is that no changes that could be made—safer designs, better regulation, a less politicized NRC—can entirely eliminate the risks of nuclear power. Nuclear plants are designed with redundant safety systems because the costs of something going wrong are so incredibly high. But there is always the possibility that a concatenation of highly unlikely—or at least unanticipated—events will lead to multiple failures. When that happens, it is very difficult for humans to put things right again. In dealing with nuclear fission, the margin for error is not low; it is zero.

In recent years, some environmentalists have advocated nuclear power—in some cases passionately—as preferable to conventional, coal-fired power plants. What these advocates generally imply, and sometimes state outright, is that the risks of continuing to pour carbon dioxide into the atmosphere are so high that the alternative must be better. Unfortunately, this logic isn't really logical. Pursuing a “business as usual” emissions path will, almost certainly, lead to global disaster. But just because one path is dangerous, it doesn't make the alternative safe.

Hugh Gusterson, a professor of anthropology at George Mason University, has, I think, summed the situation up neatly. We are, he wrote recently, left “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.”

Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change. Her series on global warming, “The Climate of Man,” from which the book was adapted, has won several awards, and she is a two-time National Magazine Award winner.


This article appeared in the May 2011 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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