The myth of absolute safety

By Kennette Benedict | March 26, 2014

Earlier this month, on the third anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, a Japanese independent commission investigating the catastrophe published its findings in a revised English-language version. The major conclusion of the detailed analysis echoes that of the official Japanese government report and provides daunting lessons. Both investigations reveal that, ultimately, the disaster was the result of human failings, rather than the earthquake or tsunami that precipitated it. In the independent report, The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Disaster: Investigating the Myth and Reality, the authors conclude that the myth of absolute safety was the underlying cause.

From airplanes to dental x-rays, there is no such thing as absolute safety when it comes to the technologies that shape our lives. Industries and regulators often grapple with this problem by acknowledging the risks and making steady improvements. The nuclear power sector, however, has had to overcome its association with nuclear bombs and, in Japan, created the myth of 100 percent safety to gain public acceptance. Unfortunately, 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.

A failure of imagination. It wasn’t easy for Japanese leaders to win public acceptance of civilian nuclear power in the mid-1950s. Memories of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were seared into people's minds, and when, in 1954, the US hydrogen bomb test Castle Bravo caused radiation poisoning to Japanese fishermen aboard the Lucky Dragon, more than 30 million people —more than a third of the population—signed a petition to protest nuclear weapons.

Business leaders and government officials who favored nuclear power used media campaigns to educate citizens about its benefits and assure them that power plant operations were safe. This is how not only nuclear power companies, nuclear experts, and government regulators, but also local governments and ordinary Japanese citizens came to believe in absolute safety. Critics and dissenters notwithstanding, all of these communities were lulled into a false sense of security.

However, flaws were built into the system from the very beginning. Rather than supporting Japanese physicists and engineers to develop nuclear power technology, business and government leaders imported power plants from the United States. But in the rush to acquire this new source of energy, authorities overlooked whether some plant designs were appropriate for conditions in Japan. The original General Electric design used at Unit 1 at Fukushima, for instance, called for back-up generators to be placed below ground because, in the United States, protecting electricity supplies from tornadoes was a major concern. While more recent models are much more attuned to conditions in Japan, the industry was initially built on wholesale acceptance of US products and safety measures, without envisioning major sources of damage from seismic activity. In the end, Japanese operators and regulators were convinced that if they adopted US and international safety standards, nuclear power would be perfectly safe.

Even as nuclear power became a domestic Japanese product, however, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) staff depended on plant manufacturers for information and problem-interpretation, rather than thinking through challenges themselves. In addition, they focused on possible accidents that could be caused by factors within power plants, while neglecting the possibility of accidents from external causes. As a result, very few of Japan’s nuclear managers and operators envisioned catastrophe beyond what their plants were originally designed to withstand. They failed to understand power plants as whole systems that could be affected by events beyond their walls. As a former Tepco executive put it, “…the root causes of the Fukushima disaster are things such as failures of imagination, overconfidence, and biases.”

Lack of preparedness. As the country struggled to develop its economy after World War II, regional governments were eager for the jobs that nuclear power plants offered and the subsidies that accompanied them. In the prefecture of Fukushima, before the disaster, nuclear power directly employed 10,000 people continuously. For rural regions in particular, where depopulation might have resulted in the death of whole villages, nuclear power plants were a welcome source of economic survival. Not all citizens agreed, and protests against nuclear power have continued from the 1950s until today. But with regional government officials, labor unions, and the industry itself backing nuclear power, the survival of the technology was all but assured.

Communities were not prepared for major accidents, however. Combined with financial incentives, the myth of absolute safety meant that companies could choose sites for nuclear plants with a minimum of fuss. This suited both the industry and government officials, who didn’t want to undermine the myth by preparing people for the possibility of an accident; to inform them of the risks could have led to panic and questions no one wanted to answer. By the 1980s the world had seen major nuclear power plant failures, both at Three Mile Island in the United States and at Chernobyl in Ukraine. But the few accidents that had occurred in Japan had not led to such meltdowns, suggesting to many inside and outside the industry that Japanese operations were very safe.

The resulting complacency, and ongoing desire to avoid alarming the public, led to unfortunate decisions at Fukushima. In 2008, Tepco convened an internal study group to discuss the response to their own tsunami simulations suggesting that waves could reach as high as 52 feet in the aftermath of an earthquake off the coast. Construction of higher sea walls to prevent flooding from such a tsunami would have taken about four years and cost several billion yen. Tepco was in a financial position to construct the walls, but one of the managers in charge of siting plants observed that if the company chose to sacrifice natural beauty in order to ensure safety, the surrounding community might raise questions about operations. As a result, no extra measures were taken to defend against a major catastrophe.

Avoiding a vicious circle. Because of these failures, the Fukushima plant spewed radioactive material into the atmosphere and ocean and forced the evacuation of 150,000 people. The clean-up will take 20 to 30 years and the land will no longer be farmed, nor will families be able to return to their homes. What then are the lessons to be learned from the disaster?

The first is that a vicious cycle can emerge from attempts to downplay the dangers of nuclear energy. Because the technology is the most dangerous on earth, capable of destroying whole communities and contaminating air, earth, and water with materials that will last for thousands of years, promoters of nuclear power work hard—perhaps too hard—to reassure the public about its safety. Based on these assurances, the public comes to believe that any incident or leak is a departure from the guarantees of safety and, as a result, may turn against nuclear power altogether. As the nuclear power industry faces protest, it makes greater claims of safety, and may even begin to conceal problems for fear that the public will become even more resistant. When safety problems are eventually revealed, the public feels betrayed and turns even further away from nuclear power. This downward spiral is destructive—not only of the nuclear power industry, but also of the public’s trust in government to protect them from danger, and even of the public’s support of science and technology.

Second, open and informed debate about nuclear power is the only means to challenge the “myth of absolute safety” without spiraling into a cycle of protest and concealment. Lurching from one side to the other, reacting to major catastrophes with either complete shutdowns or business as usual, confuses the public, leads to mistrust and apathy, and reduces prospects for wise energy policy. There are many ways to invite communities into decisions about nuclear power. Companies and governments can hold public forums on where to site new power plants or store nuclear waste, and on choosing the right energy mix for homes and businesses.

Third, as the report by the Independent Investigation Commission on the Fukushima Nuclear Accident makes clear: We are all of us—industry leaders, regulators, academic experts, and the general public—responsible for the safety of our communities. And when it comes to nuclear power, ignorance, collusion, and complacency are not acceptable options.

Together, we make the world safer.

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