04/11/2014 - 07:23

The hubris of Fukushima and Chernobyl

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette Jr

Dan Drollette, Jr. is a science writer/editor and foreign correspondent who has filed stories from every continent except Antarctica. His stories have appeared in Scientific American,...

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A new, 300-page UN report says that the Fukushima nuclear disaster is unlikely to cause radiation-related cancers on anything comparable to the scale of what followed the Chernobyl meltdown. At an April 3 scientific conference in Vienna this year, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said that the amount of radioactive substances such as iodine 131 released after the 2011 accident were much lower than after Chernobyl. Consequently, the radiation exposures—and subsequent cancers—were minimal, especially when compared to the thousands of cancer cases that occurred in the decades after Chernobyl.

Still, it’s clear that Fukushima and Chernobyl have much in common. Consider the following statements.

“Very serious mistakes were made that made the reactor essentially uncontrollable. Apparently, not only the operating personnel but also the supervision and management, over a period of 12 hours, lacked appreciation of the reactor design characteristics that made it extremely dangerous to operate under the conditions . . .” wrote one expert.

“A cascade of stupid errors that led to disaster,” said another.

These two comments sound like they refer to the same nuclear accident, and indeed both were published in the pages of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. But the above statements are actually separated by 29 years and thousands of miles. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe made the first comment in 1986, in response to the accident at Chernobyl; the second refers to Fukushima Daiichi and was made by the director of the Tsunami Research Center at the University of Southern California, Costas Synolakis, in 2014.

There are many other similarities in the various commentaries about the two incidents, all available in Bulletin archives: Both incidents spewed large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, and forced cleanups estimated to take decades—during which nearby land will no longer be farmed, and families will not be able to return home. And in both cases, investigations revealed that the disasters were ultimately the result of human failings, rather than outside events.

Above all, both situations displayed an underlying attitude that the plants were 100 percent safe. Indeed, as Kennette Benedict wrote in “The Myth of Absolute Safety” in March 2014, “Unfortunately, (Japan’s) nuclear companies and regulators themselves came to accept the myth as reality, believing that they had done everything possible to make their power plants safe. But this myth led to a perverse outcome: If the power companies identified and made necessary improvements, or staged accident-preparedness drills, they would reveal that nuclear power was not absolutely safe, and the public, they believed, would end its support for nuclear power. Fearing a lack of acceptance, nuclear operators were reluctant to undertake safety upgrades, and even concealed problems.”

In the case of Japan’s TEPCO—operators of the Fukushima Daiichi plant—this mindset led to ignoring any warnings or new information about the reach of tsunamis. At one point, TEPCO even removed 25 meters of a 35-meter high natural seawall protecting their plant, with what proved to be disastrous results.

A similar “indifference to safety” was also a hallmark of those overseeing Chernobyl, wrote David Albright in his 1986 Bulletin article, “Chernobyl and the US Nuclear Industry.” One example of this indifference was a design flaw that seems blindingly obvious now: There was no steel-reinforced concrete containment building at Chernobyl to corral radioactivity in the event of an accident.

Albright observed: “Before the accident, Soviet engineers proudly proclaimed that such an accident could never happen. But the operation of nuclear reactors is very complicated. Just as the Soviets overestimated the safety of their reactors, US nuclear engineers might also be overconfident.”

The story goes on to note that there were many serious operating mishaps at American nuclear power plants in 1985, and that then-Nuclear Regulatory Commission member James Asseltine said they were taking place at an unacceptably high rate. In congressional testimony in May 1986, Asseltine stated: “Given the present level of safety being achieved by the operating nuclear power plants in this country, we can expect to see a core meltdown accident within the next 20 years, and it is possible that such an accident could result in off-site releases of radiation which are as large as, or larger than, the releases estimated to have occurred at Chernobyl.”

But overall, despite occasional critics like Asseltine, Bulletin archives show that a common attitude cropped up very quickly among investigators of the incidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima: The investigators seemed to believe that they were dealing with the outlying artifacts of extraordinary circumstances, rather than the inevitable outcome of poor designs and hubris.

This is probably best summed up in Walter Patterson’s November 1986, Bulletin article, “Chernobyl: the Official Story,” which summarizes the mood of a post-disaster investigative conference. He wrote that Western delegations began to hedge about Chernobyl, declaring that they did not know enough to be able to offer definitive opinions: “Onlookers reflected that the Western delegations might have been reluctant to challenge Soviet nuclear safety directly, lest the Soviets reciprocate with a similar challenge about the safety of Western nuclear plants. Human error is not unique to the Soviet Union.

"As a result, the final plenary saw a comradely closing of the nuclear ranks, and an outpouring of mutual congratulations on the week’s efforts . . .

"Questions nonetheless remain. The nuclear power industry has suffered its first unambiguous catastrophe and come to terms with it. The nuclear community clearly expects the rest of the world to do likewise—to put Chernobyl behind it and press on. The rest of the world, however, may not be so sanguine.”