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The myth of absolute safety via Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Earlier this month, on the third anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, a Japanese independent commission investigating the catastrophe published its findings in a revised English-language version. The major conclusion of the detailed analysis echoes that of the official Japanese government report and provides daunting lessons. Both investigations reveal that, ultimately, the disaster was the result of human failings, rather than the earthquake or tsunami that precipitated it. In the independent report, The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Disaster: Investigating the Myth and Reality, the authors conclude that the myth of absolute safety was the underlying cause.

From airplanes to dental x-rays, there is no such thing as absolute safety when it comes to the technologies that shape our lives. Industries and regulators often grapple with this problem by acknowledging the risks and making steady improvements. The nuclear power sector, however, has had to overcome its association with nuclear bombs and, in Japan, created the myth of 100 percent safety to gain public acceptance. Unfortunately, nuclear companies and regulators themselves came to accept the myth as reality, believing that they had done everything possible to make their power plants safe. But this myth led to a perverse outcome: If the power companies identified and made necessary improvements, or staged accident-preparedness drills, they would reveal that nuclear power was not absolutely safe, and the public, they believed, would end its support for nuclear power. Fearing a lack of acceptance, nuclear operators were reluctant to undertake safety upgrades, and even concealed problems.

A failure of imagination. It wasn’t easy for Japanese leaders to win public acceptance of civilian nuclear power in the mid-1950s. Memories of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were seared into people’s minds, and when, in 1954, the US hydrogen bomb test Castle Bravo caused radiation poisoning to Japanese fishermen aboard the Lucky Dragon, more than 30 million people —more than a third of the population—signed a petition to protest nuclear weapons.

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Avoiding a vicious circle. Because of these failures, the Fukushima plant spewed radioactive material into the atmosphere and ocean and forced the evacuation of 150,000 people. The clean-up will take 20 to 30 years and the land will no longer be farmed, nor will families be able to return to their homes. What then are the lessons to be learned from the disaster?

Read more at The myth of absolute safety

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