Nuclear safety and security lessons from Chernobyl and Fukushima

By William Tobey | March 11, 2021

Leningrad nuclear power plant: a pond for storing spent fuel rods at the Leningrad nuclear power plant in Sosnovy Bor. Photo credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #305008/ Alexey Danichev/CC-BY-SA 3.0Leningrad nuclear power plant: a pond for storing spent fuel rods at the Leningrad nuclear power plant in Sosnovy Bor. Photo credit: RIA Novosti archive, image #305008/ Alexey Danichev/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Editor’s note: This article is part of a collection of expert commentary on nuclear safety published on the tenth anniversary of the Fukushima disaster, produced in a collaboration between the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School and the Bulletin.

At last week’s Harvard Belfer Center conference on nuclear safety and security lessons from the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi disasters, international experts reflected on matters of preparation, operation, governance, and mitigation related to minimizing and managing nuclear risks.

Niels Bohr introduced the principle of complementarity to physics in 1927, but he also urged its wider application as an epistemological tool. He believed that insights could be gained by weighing two competing desiderata, for example the value of tradition vs. innovation. His technique was evident in the lessons arising from last week’s dialogue among speakers. These lessons include:

  1. We must learn from and remember the lessons of the past—while recognizing that Fukushima is not going to “happen again” as future accidents will have their own characteristics; while remembering the past, we must also avail ourselves of advances in seismology, climatology, engineering, etc.
  2. As we aspire to excellence in safety and security, we must anticipate that human systems can never be perfected and therefore that mitigation must join measurement, minimization, and management of risk.
  3. Deaths per kilowatt-hour is an important measure of risk entailed by various sources of energy, but it is insufficient, as costs from nuclear accidents also take the forms of, inter alia, environmental, economic, and emotional damage.
  4. We must avoid regulatory capture, while giving those who are regulated a say in the formulation of standards. Related to that assertion: While regulations are a vital element of nuclear safety and security, they are insufficient; in the words of Duncan Hawthorne, “no one ever wrote a book entitled Regulate Your Way to Excellence.”
  5. While harmonization of best practices is desirable, we must also recognize and account for national differences in culture and operations. Related to that: While nuclear safety and security are national responsibilities, they are also international obligations—imposed both by treaty and reality.
  6. An organizational culture committed to excellence in nuclear safety and operations may not be sufficient to guarantee effective security, but the absence of such a commitment precludes it.
  7. The pursuit of “regulatory stability,” meant to give operators a predictable working environment, likely results in dangerous declines in the effectiveness of nuclear security, as evolving threats from novel technologies and capabilities emerge, e.g. cyber and drone attacks.
  8. While decisions on nuclear safety and security must be supported by technical analyses, their effects are profoundly human and must also reflect informed consent by those potentially affected by them.
Spent nuclear fuel mismanagement poses a major threat to the United States. Here's how.

There was a final vital lesson with no obverse. Nuclear operators and regulators have failed to internalize and act on the risk of a spent fuel cooling pond fire—which was avoided only by extraordinary luck at Fukushima Daiichi. Whether arising from an attack or an accident, such a fire would have disastrous consequences.

Aditi Verma wisely urged policy-makers and operators to adopt epistemic pluralism. Were they to do so, it would advance Bohr’s principle of complementarity at a systemic level and consequently strengthen nuclear safety and security.

Read more expert commentaries in this collection »

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