What is the future of nuclear safety after Fukushima?

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Fukushima alone cannot change future approaches to nuclear safety

In Japan, TEPCO’s approach to safety remained lax even as the Fukushima disaster was unfolding, leading to a significant lack of trust in the government and the (nuclear-power) operators today by the Japanese public.  The Japanese government who had created the myth that nuclear plants are absolutely safe, mainly to counter anti-nuclear activists, what resulted was the government was bound by its own myth and became too inflexible to accept the latest technological ideas.

Will Durant once said that human knowledge and history have become so unmanageably vast; that every science had produced a dozen more subtle sciences; until it became too great for the human mind.  Leaving the common man to decide between only the “scientific expert” who knew “more and more about less and less”, and the philosophical speculator, who knew “less and less about more and more.”.  The expert put on blinders in order to shut out from his vision all of the world, save one bleak spot, to which he so swiftly glued his nose, that he lost all sense of perception and perspective.

Durant also explained that “facts” have long-since replaced understanding; and that the gap between life and knowledge grew wider and wider after reason (the same reason which is the life of the law), which had “once summoned all sciences to its aid in making a coherent image of the world, found the task of coordination too stupendous for its courage, and ran away from the battlefronts of truth, to hide itself timidly assuring its own security from the issues and responsibilities of life.”

Japan ignored various warning signs from abroad concerning nuclear safety and failed to set the need for measures for what the country considered 100 percent safe.  The problem with using probability and risk to assess the safety of a nuclear power plant is that that you make other decisions based on these assumptions that might be compromised if the “facts” are later proved invalid.  If it is able to be claimed that something can or cannot occur, then things are constructed or performed differently, we can see this in history, as TEPCO lowered the land near the ocean that the nuclear plant would be built upon, based on the fatal assumption that such a tsunami would never occur.

When knowledge becomes too great or confidential for communication, it runs the risk of degenerating into a form of elite scholasticism, otherwise known as the weak acceptance of authority.  This ultimately leads to the dehumanization of modern knowledge.

Yotaro Hatamura, head of an independent investigation panel noted it is most important to prepare for accidents based on the idea that what is improbable is possible. He said Japan had lacked this idea.

Mr. Meserve, currently president of Carnegie Institution for Science was quoted by the Wall Street Journal saying, “There has to be a willingness to acknowledge that accidents can happen.” Tepco was unwilling to consider the risks of “external events,” he added.

“For one month, the operator didn’t get a sufficient number of dosimeters for people who were risking their lives to save the nuclear plant,” said Lars-Erik Holm, director-general of the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare. “There is something seriously wrong with the safety culture of that organization.”

Tetsuro Fukuyama former Japanese deputy chief Cabinet secretary said it was a grave mistake on his part to believe that officials would pass on information soon after it was confirmed.  When Kan began appointing new independent officials to his panel of advisors Industry officials argued in Japan that it is utterly inappropriate for academics without any official responsibilities and whose special political training is uncertain to be involved in major policy decisions.

A discovery of a product of intelligence is more exciting than the product of an accident.  History repeated has shown that the toughest problems are not questioned until science could no longer advance without taking them into account.  Likelihood is not fact, and an argument or assumption based on likelihoods may turn out to be as wrong as the wildest guess, it may even miss the entire point, as a microscope misses a painting.  These patterns lead to a culture that tends to mistrust the meaning, and stick to the rationalization.  Subjectivity is only valid for as long as it keeps itself open to the reality of meaning outside of itself.

It is important to remember the past is as real as the present, even when assured that this world we live in here and now is far more important.  When it comes to safety we must reverse the burden of proof, we are not aware of many absolutes in the universe, and cannot afford to make a critical error in judgment while attempting to control life by ruler and scale.  We would be ignorant to think that we could be able to prevent a nuclear disaster any more today than we could one year ago.  We simply haven’t learned the lessons yet, and often can draw parallels to Descartes method of doubting everything that can be doubted, and hoping that whatever was left over would be ‘truth’.


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What are the decisions that we need to be making today to ensure that we are at the right place 20 years from now?

And the question I would ask is, what is the future of nuclear safety?

The Honorable Gregory B. JaczkoChairman U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission at

Platts 8th Rockville, MD Annual Nuclear Energy Conference

February 9, 2012

 

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