Today in our energy hungry world, the reliance on nuclear power is getting larger and larger. Nuclear power is on top of the list of forms of power available to generate electricity in the quantities, forms and reliability needed as we head towards the 21st century. Current operating nuclear plants number approximately Nuclear energy production will grow an average of 3.3 to 4.2% Per Year worldwide from 1988-2005 (IAEA News briefs, Sept.1989).
Though we have experienced if not the worst techno genic environmental disaster of the 20th century fourteen years ago – Chernobyl, together with the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island twenty-one years ago, most people today give only passing thoughts to the issue of nuclear safety worldwide. These two cases are only mere examples of the ominous potential for accidents of great magnitude within such nuclear plants worldwide. It is vital that we understand both the logic and outcomes of such disasters.
Today fourteen years later, effects of Chernobyl are still hazardous and have been detected all over the world. Belarus, a country most affected by history’s worst nuclear disaster does not even have a nuclear plant. The radiation released from Chernobyl was 200 times more than that of the combined releases of the atom bombs that annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Due to prevailing winds, 25 percent of the land in Belarus is uninhabitable. All normal life has stopped there, people are afraid to move, stay, marry and afraid to have families.
The costs of the accidents after-effects are monumental; resettlement of people affected, medical and clean-up costs are just a few on the priority list. The problem lies in ignorance of interactions between human, engineering, organizational and managerial factors of such a system. In most cases human error is customarily cited as a major cause of the problem. Sometimes in my mind I cannot blame the operators involved, reason being that the control rooms of such plants are a maze of complex displays and controls spread over an array of many rooms.
In the case of an emergency, due to the mere size and complexity of such rooms, errors are just begging to occur. Error is also a combination of many factors such as ineffective training, intricate operating procedures, and natural disasters. Usually the direction taken to ensure safety at such nuclear plants is one of tending to find an engineering solution. If the above mentioned factors together with the use of safety and human factors in the engineering education for such large-scale technological systems are used, then we would be heading the right direction; a safer, productive life not only for us but for our environment as well. Nuclear regulation is the public’s Politics, resource and structural problems are another major cause.
For example here in the US, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was set up as the major regulatory agency. Under staffed and under skilled employees are just one of their obstacles. Relying on the fact that the industry itself is responsible for safety tests on plants, the NRC has over looked many issues while tending to focus on matters with greatest safety importance. We should all know that system failures can be traced to all those small components that make up this human/machine interface. Whenever we have such components fitted together and are in interaction it is crucial to give weight not only to the human and technological factors but also to how they operate together.
The NRC’s relationship with the industry has been suspect since its creation in 1974. Operations of such regulatory agencies worldwide is greatly influenced by the member states (IAEA) who have such nuclear operating plants. The power of money in hand and foreign relation policies of these states control the acts and decisions of such agencies. Structural troubles include the fact that it is only optional for member states to comply with or use safety principles set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1986 . Thus there is no clear cut accord by IAEA member states on the issue of complying with safety standards. Lack of Safety is yet another obstacle. Many nuclear plants in Central and Eastern Europe (e.g. Ukraine) are just time bombs waiting to blow.
Many of these plants have not yet collapsed probably due the fact that combination of events needed for failure has not yet occurred or that they have just not been given enough time. Hence it is high time that the international community and the G-7 get involved. The problem(s) in this industry needs to be tackled collectively, no one is in a position today to solve this complex field of science and practice individually, irrespective of depth of education or dedication.
Political, economic and cultural barriers have to be crushed if we are to achieve this. A collaborative effort worldwide, especially from the West is needed to form, support a research team, to counter and unravel studies, develop universal policies and to staff such nuclear plants if we are to avoid any more Chernobyl’s in the future. Future Chernobyl’s can be avoided but it is up to us.
Firstly we must make space for reality to take precedence over public relations for any successful technology, as we cannot fool nature . Secondly much greater guarantees, co-operation and communication is needed between the industry, the regulatory agencies and the member states. Safety will only be achieved if ALL those involved play their part whole heartedly and honestly right down from the plant workers through the manufacturers and regulatory agencies right up to the financial institutions that control this whole Overall, I’m trying to convey that safety is key in the nuclear power plants. A major nuclear meltdown would be a global concern.
To prevent this we need to form, support and research teams, to develop universal policies and to staff nuclear plants if we are to avoid any more Chernobyl’s or TMI’s in the future. Human error was the root of the problem in these two catastrophes, so to prevent this from happening again the government needs to put trained and licenced nuclear engineers to work who know what they are doing, especially if a problem is to arise.
- N. Meshkati. “Los Angeles Herald Examiner”, March 28, 1989.
- M. Specter “New York Times”, March 31, 1996.
- E. Pooley “Time Magazine”, March 4, 1996.
- N.Meshkati. “Foreign Policy Journal”; U.N. 50th Anniversary, The Critical Role of The U.N. Ensuring the Safety of Nuclear Power Plants Around The World”.
- Pringle, Laurence. Nucular Energy Troubled Past Uncertain Future. New York: Macmillan
Publishing Company, 1989.
- Lampton, Christopher. Nuclear Accident. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1992