22. March 2011
I was at breakfast last Thursday perusing USA Today. Of course the headlines were all about the aftermath of the earthquake, then the tsunami, and finally the nuclear power plant problems. One of the articles included a poll taken after the disaster that indicated that 70% of Americans have more concern about the safety of nuclear energy since Japan’s crisis began. Now, that is not surprising. But the article went on to say that “a plurality of Americans now oppose building more nuclear plants, a significant change from the 57% that supported nuclear energy when Gallup asked a similar question less than two weeks before.”
In situations like this we know that emotions sometime overrule rational thought and can cloud decision making. I began thinking about one of the first blog posts I did last year just as Citation Station was beginning. In that post I talked about the premise of how I believe that striving to be compliant with law and regulation can have an additional benefit of allowing one to also be running a top notch prevention program that avoids the problems the laws were promulgated to prevent. When I think about Japan I think about a society that truly believes in that premise. Being in a high risk area for earthquakes, the Japanese have some of the most stringent building requirements in the world. Some say that they are much more stringent than those in the United States. When you analyze the post-earthquake, pre-tsunami period of this recent disaster, I believe you would find that the country fared extremely well from the quake itself. There were no building collapses in the city close to the epicenter and it seems as if the regulations prevented a catastrophe as has been seen in many other less regulated areas. From a loss of life and property standpoint the prevention system worked as designed. If you look at the post-tsunami outcome you see a very different picture. Villages were wiped out. There was massive loss of life and treasure, and when you look at the regulatory makeup you find much less regulation and therefore much less prevention.
Now let’s add the nuclear power plant problems into the mix. The earthquake knocked out power, but that was considered as a possibility in Japan’s safety regulations and there was a backup system of on- site emergency generators to keep water being pumped through the reactor and over the spent fuel rods. The generators kicked in and everyone must have breathed a sigh of relief. Then came the tsunami and the wall of water that flooded out the emergency generators and fouled the fuel supply. Luckily, there was a third safety system required by Japan’s nuclear regulator, that of battery backup. The batteries kicked in and would work for up to eight hours – seemingly enough to repair whatever went wrong with the primary system or the backup system. But as we now know, that rebuild time was not enough.
The question before us, I believe, is: Learning from this, second only to the Chernobyl disaster, should we just walk away from what might be considered the best non-carbon based source of power or should we re-examine at our regulatory system and determine whether there is yet more prevention that we need to build into the system? I hope that we move away from emotion based decision making and towards a much more fact based analytical approach to determining how we provide our future power generation.
What do you think?