The Ripon Forum

Volume 45, No. 3

Summer 2011 Issue

In the Wake of Fukushima

By on August 14, 2014 with 0 Comments

by DALE KLEIN

dkleinrfIn the wake of the nuclear incident at Fukushima, Japan, the world held its breath wondering if the facilities would be capable of recovering from one of the most significant natural disasters in recorded history. While the media never failed to report on every setback, it missed the opportunity to report on what went right. This is what separates those who want to report the news from those who want to change the world.

As engineers and scientists across the globe begin to review this event, some common themes and causes began to emerge. The first, and most fundamental, was the scope of the regional disaster itself and the lack of preparation by local and national authorities to cope with an event of this magnitude. Second, and perhaps more difficult to understand, was the multi-layered complacent belief by the Japanese government that contingency plans addressed every possibility. To appreciate this, one has to understand the Japanese culture and their structure of governance that tends to frown upon the questioning of a superior’s position or understanding.

Over the years, I have made many friends within the Japanese nuclear safety community and industry. I can tell you that at an individual level, they have the same passion as I do for questioning and challenging the fundamental requirements for a strong safety culture. But as a collective body, they have difficulty breaking the barriers of social and political protocol which limits their ability to reform.

Faced with the Fukushima disaster, and certainty of power shortages and economic hardship that will hurt the Japanese people, I believe that Japan now has the opportunity to “do it right.” It took the Three Mile Island accident in the U.S. to force utilities, vendors, and regulators to do the in-depth self-criticism that eventually led them to strive for excellence. It remains to be seen if the Japanese culture can evolve to accept and embrace the concepts of self-criticism, to have a questioning attitude, to share best practices, and more importantly, fully disclose their failures when thing go wrong.

 The lessons to be learned from Fukushima are many, but what may be surprising is how few may actually apply to U.S. plants.

The lessons to be learned from Fukushima are many, but what may be surprising is how few may actually apply to U.S. plants. The facts are that these plants survived the earthquake and would have survived the damage caused by the tsunami if backup power had been supplied. In the U.S., this condition is known as “Station Blackout” and was addressed extensively by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. nuclear industry after 9/11. While a nuclear reactor is technically complex, what is now emerging as the fundamental failure has little to do with the nuclear reactor design but the decision on where and how to site the facility and, most importantly, the design of back-up systems to withstand historical tsunamis. Worldwide, I expect all nuclear plants will be re-examined for beyond-design basis events, including new plants either already under construction or planned.

Along the coastal areas of Japan are historical markers, some dating back over 600 years, which warn of the devastation caused by tsunamis. The markers delineate the inland boundaries where historically tsunamis had left a path of destruction. Had the constructors of the Fukushima plant in the 1960’s taken these warnings to heart, they could have engineered systems that would have prevented what was ultimately responsible for triggering this tragedy.

Underway right now in the U.S. and around the world is an effort to examine plants situated in vulnerable areas to determine if adequate precautions have been taken. It is the nature of the U.S. nuclear industry to constantly question and seek to improve. Many outside the nuclear industry do not understand the process that drives us after a significant event such as Fukushima. Probing analysis, self-criticism, and questioning attitudes –the hallmarks of the industry’s safety culture — are not intended to assign blame, but rather to gain insight and improve the safety and reliability of operations. However, in a culture where it is impolite to say “no” and where ritual must be observed before all else, I think that Western style “safety culture” will be very hard for the Japanese to accept. But accept it they must if they want to achieve excellence.

 In a culture where it is impolite to say “no” and where ritual must be observed before all else, I think that Western style “safety culture” will be very hard for the Japanese to accept. But accept it they must if they want to achieve excellence.

At Fukushima, there were mistakes made and there were decisions that should have been made, but were not. But there were also extraordinary — even heroic — efforts made by brilliant dedicated engineers, operators, and technicians who recovered a six-reactor site from one of the worst natural disasters ever seen. And they did it under the worst of conditions. Many left behind their desperate families and did not know the fate of friends and loved ones. Their dedication and willingness to sacrifice deserves our admiration and our thanks.

For this reason, I do not doubt that the Japanese nuclear industry has the capability to transform to a nuclear operations safety culture. If anyone doubts they can achieve this, you need only remember that less than 50 years ago the term “Made in Japan” was synonymous with cheap and unreliable products.

But the Japanese embraced the concepts of quality that propelled their automotive and electronics brands to world leaders. I believe they can also achieve this same status in nuclear operations as well.   RF

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Dale Klein, Ph.D., P.E., serves as Associate Vice Chancellor for Research for the University of Texas System in Austin, and is Associate Director of the University’s Energy Institute. From 2006 to 2009, he served as Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

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