With Nuclear Power, Overconfidence is Deadly


Fukushima #3 Photo credit: daveeza via Flickr/CC BY-SA

After an accident in any high-profile industry that makes the public nervous, it's pretty common to see business interests, regulators, and public officials rush to assure everybody that the incident was a fluke, and that the power plants running elsewhere are safe, safe, safe. We saw it with the BP spill -- major oil companies came forward to say that, well, they had properly updated contingency plans (even if they looked suspiciously like the one that failed BP), and that such an event was unlikely to occur again. And so it is with the nuclear crisis in Japan -- American nuclear regulatory officials have come out to assuage the anxious public's fears. Our plants are entirely secure, they say, there's no reason to be afraid of a meltdown happening here. Except there is, actually -- however slight chances of disaster may be. But we'd do best to address those concerns rather than sweeping them under the rug.Slate's William Saletan has a smart piece on this phenomenon of nuclear overconfidence, which offers one of the best lines I've seen written about the nuclear debacle:

On Wednesday, Gregory Jaczko, the chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, testified before a Senate subcommittee about the nuclear crisis in Japan. He assured the committee of "our continuing confidence in the safety of the U.S. commercial nuclear reactor fleet." In their opening statements, Jaczko and William Levis, an executive representing the industry's Nuclear Energy Institute, used variants of the words assure, ensure, and confident 21 times.

I don't want to hear the industry and its regulators talk this way after Fukushima. I don't want to hear confidence and assurances. I want to hear humility and a ruthless re-examination of assumptions ... I understand the need to put Fukushima in perspective. I agree with Jaczko and Levis about the relative safety of nuclear power. Measured by accidents, direct fatalities, and indirect health damage, nuclear energy is many times safer than fossil fuel production. It's even safer than hydroelectricity, which has killed thousands of people in dam failures. But the key to nuclear safety isn't confidence. It's doubt.

(Emphasis mine). That's exactly right. It's still not clear how great the scope of the tragedy at Fukushima will be -- some plant workers have been confirmed dead, super-radioactive waste is being discharged into the ocean as I tap this out, and radiation levels are still in question in various locations around the region. But regardless, it's absolutely the kind of disaster we must attempt to prevent from ever happening again. As such, we need to understand it, probe it, contrast it with previous failures, and investigate any potential analogs that the faulty systems at Fukushima may have to the applicable plants here in the US.

It makes no sense at all to assume that we simply have better regulations, better machinery of better luck than Japan, and to call it a day. With something that has the capacity to go disastrously wrong -- and that's as loaded in the public imagination as nuclear power -- brash overconfidence is the worst card to play. It's also the attitude that gets us blindsided when and if a comparable disaster were to strike here -- that overconfidence can kill.

Read Saletan's piece here.

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