Fukushima

A good article from the Guardian: Quiet voices must be heard to avert a future Fukushima. Some excerpts:

Japan's part-natural, part-human disaster is an extraordinary event. As well as dealing with the consequences of an earthquake and tsunami, rescuers are having to evacuate thousands of people from the danger zone around Fukushima. In addition, the country is blighted by blackouts from the shutting of 10 or more nuclear plants. It is a textbook case of how technology can increase our vulnerability through unintended side-effects.

Yet there had been early warnings from analysts. In 2006, the Japanese professor Katsuhiko Ishibashi resigned from a nuclear power advisory panel, saying that the policy of building in earthquake zones could lead to catastrophe, and that design standards for proofing them against damage were too lax. Further back, the seminal study of accidents in complex technologies was Charles Perrow's Normal Accidents, published in 1984.

Perrow, a Yale professor, analysed accidents in chemical plants, air traffic control, shipping and dams, as well as his main focus: the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Things can go wrong with design, equipment, procedures, operators, supplies and the environment. Occasionally two or more will have problems simultaneously; in a complex technology such as a nuclear plant, the potential for this is ever-present. Perrow took five pages to sketch what went wrong in the first 13 seconds of the incident. He concluded that in complex systems, "no matter how effective conventional safety devices are, there is a form of accident that is inevitable" – hence "normal accidents".

Unfortunately, such events are often made worse by the way the nuclear industry and governments handle the early stages of disasters, as they reassure us that all is fine. Some statements are well intentioned. But as things get worse, people wonder why early reassurances were issued when it is apparent that there was no basis for them. It is simply too early to say what precisely went wrong at Fukushima, and it has been surprising to see commentators speak with such speed and certainty. Most people accept that they will only ever have a rough understanding of the facts. But they instinctively ask if they can trust those in charge and wonder why governments support particular technologies so strongly.

Industry and governments need to be more straightforward with the public. The pretence of knowledge is deeply unscientific; a more humble approach where officials are frank about the unknowns would paradoxically engender greater trust. Likewise, nuclear's opponents need to adopt a measured approach. We need a fuller democratic debate about the choices we are making. Catastrophic potential needs to be a central criterion in decisions about technology. Advice from experts is useful, but the most significant questions are ethical in character.

I've had Normal Accidents on the shelf for a while and figured now was a good time to finally read it. Perrow also published a sequel that just came out in paperback last month: The Next Catastrophe: Reducing our vulnerabilities to natural, industrial, and terrorist disasters.

In Mortal Hands

InMortalHands This new book sounds very interesting: In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age by Stephanie Cooke. From the book description:

This provocative history of nuclear power is perfectly timed for today,
when Americans are gravely concerned with nuclear terrorism, and a
nuclear renaissance is seen as a possible solution to global warming.
Few have truly come to terms with the complexities of an issue which
may determine the future of the planet. Nuclear weapons, it was once
hoped, would bring wars to an end; instead, they spurred a massive arms
race that has recently expanded to include North Korea and I ran. Once
seen as a source of unlimited electricity, nuclear reactors breed
contamination and have been used as covers for secret weapons programs,
from India and Pakistan to Iraq and Iran. 

The evolving
story of nuclear power, as told by industry insider Stephanie Cooke,
reveals the gradual deepening of our understanding of the pros and cons
of this controversial energy source. Drawing on her unprecedented
access, Cooke shows us how, time and again, the stewards of the nuclear
age—the more-is-better military commanders and civilian nuclear
boosters—have fallen into the traps of their own hubris and wishful
thinking as they tried to manage the unmanageable. Their mistakes are
on the verge of being repeated again, which is why this book deserves
especially close attention now.

The author has a web site for the book at In Mortal Hands.