Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Milton Shaw's Nuclear Safety Failure

Milton Shaw believed that nuclear safety research was unneeded because rigorous attention to good engineering , proper training and adequate quality controlwould assure that a major accident would never occur. Yet the AEC during the Shaw era was not taking steps to assure that the good engineering , proper training and adequate quality control were emerging in the newly emerging nuclear industry. There was more than one way the AEC could have gone about this. For example, it could have taken the stance that monitoring of nuclear safety was its business, and instituted a vigorous program of design review, quality control monitoring, and monitoring for compliance throughout the industry. it did not do so. Alternatively the AEC could have taken the stance that nuclear safety was part of the business of the industry, and turned management of safety practices over to the industry. But even in a safety self management system, the AEC had a responsibility to insure that the nuclear industry understood what good safety practices were and how to carry them out. Investigations conducted after Three Mile Island revealed deficiencies in the safety aspects of reactor design, and inadequate operator training. The AEC's nuclear safety system had been a failure, and reforms to that safety system instituted by the NRC following the AEC's break up, had also failed.

Milton Shaw was quite mistaken in his assumption that good engineering , proper training and adequate quality control would prevent nuclear accidents because his safety scheme was not being applied by the AEC and the nuclear industry, and while he should have known that this was the case, he either did not know, or chose to ignore what he knew. In either case, Milton Shaw deserves, in no small measure, blame for The Three Mile Island accident, because after defining the AEC's policy on nuclear safety, he did not ensure that that policy was being carried out.

Investigation of the causes of the Three Mile Island accident revealed that the design of the reactors safety control system's human interface was poorly designed. Design flaws coupled with inadequate operator training lead to operator errors as the accident unfolded. These errors and their consequences, as Shaw had anticipated, had snowballed. Had the safety control system, which Shaw had anticipated, been in place no major accident would have occurred at Three Mile Island.

We must take Shaw's views about nuclear safety to have been shallow. Three Mile island demonstrated that his views on nuclear safety were not valid, in the absence of policies and practices they entailed. Yet Shaw did not insure that those policies and practices were in place.

The frustration of the scientific community, ad the emergence of the revolt of national laboratory scientists against Shaw's nuclear safety policy is understandable. Shaw;s policy was nothing short of crazy, and craziness on that scale can only lead to disaster.

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