The burden of truth

14 September 2011

I am concerned that the entirely decent sympathy felt for the misery of the people of Japan from by the mid-March earthquake and tsunami blunts our critical senses when considering the state of the plants’ preparedness beforehand. We should not feel disloyal to our Japanese colleagues to criticise the Japanese nuclear industry.

For example, my leader in April was full of praise for site personnel, who were working in horrible circumstances. I stand by that, and them; but I cannot help my feelings leaking over toward a position of uncritical unquestioning loyalty of the Japanese cause. For example, I have felt uneasy about the forthright criticisms of the Japanese nuclear industry from some quarters. “How dare you”—I say to myself—“kick them when they are down?”

But I am being too emotional. Already, study and review of an incident still fresh in the mind has begun. Conferences have been held.

Why, indeed, should you or I be allowed time for our emotions to settle? Head of the IAEA mission to Japan, Mike Weightman, said at the Nuclear Industry Association’s Nuclear New Build 2011 conference in early July that the main thing was to learn the lessons for the industry as soon as possible, to protect us all from possible future threats. The industry should not have to wait years, as it did after the accident at Three Mile Island, to understand what to do next. He is right.

Even now, TEPCO will still need assistance in dealing with the many problems of Fukushima Daiichi. And we should help with that. But we in the rest of the industry have an urgent need as well, to make sure that the next threat, which might come tomorrow, will not threaten us. (And Japanese nuclear plant operators need that assurance too).

Although it seems disloyal, we need to honestly and critically appraise the Japanese nuclear industry pre-Fukushima: its emergency preparedness plans (should its backup diesels have been installed in the turbine hall basement?), its plant updates (did it keep up with state of the art?) and the relationship between the Japanese regulator and the industry, to name a few, to be able to make a realistic comparison with the nuclear industry elsewhere. It is nothing personal; if the situation were reversed, I would expect that they would do the same.

If this industry is a lake, ripples from Fukushima lap against everyone’s dock. All nuclear countries pay the price of public fear from Fukushima. What happened at one nuclear power plant in Japan has seriously affected eight in Germany.

Criticising TEPCO’s emergency response post-Fukushima is a more complicated matter, since the situation was so extremely adverse. It is all too easy to make grand pronouncements from the comfort of one’s office chair, and with the benefit of hindsight, about what they should have done. To state the obvious, the earthquake and tsunami left behind a scene of total apocalyptic devastation, the scale of which almost none of us have ever faced. Notwithstanding, there are sure to be lessons there too.

At the conference, I asked Weightman if he felt torn between sympathy for the plight of workers on site, and his responsibility as a regulator to report on what went wrong. On the contrary, he replied: only after a visitor develops empathy with people on the site and an understanding of what they are going through can he or she understand the real picture.

Author Info:

Will Dalrymple, editor

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