The Dai-ichi accident was due to a planning failure. The reactor site plan did not allow for a 10 + meter high tsunami, ands important reactor safety equipment was overwhelmed and taken out of service by a 10 + meter tsunami. Beyond the failure of the emergency back up generators, the Dai-Ichi reactors were were designed utilizing the nuclear safety science of the day, and while reasonably safe, they were not the safest reactors possible. Indeed the term "safest reactor possible" is ambiguous, because there is a history of nuclear safety, and the history of nuclear safety demonstrates that not every choice that was made regarding nuclear safety was made with the idea of developing the safest possible nuclear technology in mind.
Unfortunately the goal of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in the 1960's was not to create the safest possible nuclear technology, it was to promote the expansion of still very weak nuclear manufacturing and energy production industries to a position of dominance in electrical production. This can be illustrated by a document which Kirk Sorensen has recently drawn attention too. A 1962 report by the AEC to President Kennedy titled, "Civilian Nuclear Power."
This report was signed by a Nobel Prize winning scientist, who was also the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Glenn T. Seaborg. The word safety appeared only once in the report. One page 60 the report contained the suggestion that future licensing reviews should concentrate
on those features which have an effect on the health and safety of the general public.the report added,
This will be easier to accomplish as reactors become more standardized.Thus the attitude of the AEC and of Seaborg appears to have been to let nuclear safety take care of itself without further research. Nor did the AEC consider the safety potential of various nuclear technologies important enough to note in its Report to President Kennedy. This neglect was not by accident. Rather it reflected a fundamental attitude of the leadership of the Washington nuclear establishment, which included Seaborg, fellow AEC Commissioner James T. Ramsey, Congressman Chet Hollifield, and AEC bureaucrat Milton Shaw. Within a few years this neglect of nuclear safety would serve as a back drop for the development of a powerful anti-nuclear movement, and a split within the AEC's own research establishment, that would see research scientists testifying against the AEC before Congressional committees.
The Washington nuclear establishment appears to have jointly held a broad set of beliefs about nuclear technology which included:
* The safety of Light Water Reactor (LWR) technology had been established by the United States NavyThis set of beliefs was to have an extremely unfortunate effect on the development of nuclear power in the United States, and globally.
* Reactor safety could be assured by adhering to United States Navy nuclear safety practices
* Of all advanced nuclear technologies, Liquid Metal Fast Breeder (LMFBR) technology was the most promising
*Like LWR technology, LMFBR technology was mature
* Other nuclear technologies were less promising, and there for future AEC programs should focus on LWR and LMFBR technologies
* LWR technology simply needed to be implemented, and obstacles should be moved out of that path
* The next step in the development of nuclear technology was the construction of a LMFBR prototype
It should be noted that scientists within the AEC's own research establishments did not accept the Washington Nuclear Establishment's consensus. Scientists at the AEC's national Laboratories were by no means satisfied with the safety of Light Water Reactors. In particular scientists at the AEC's reactor research facility in Idaho, as well as at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, were concerned that not enough was known about reactor safety, to judge the safety of Light Water Reactors. In addition a continuing series of accidents involving LMFBR prototypes, suggested that the maturity of LMFBR technology had not reached to level of safety that would justify a description of that technology as mature.
One particular problem troubled early nuclear safety researchers,
Because of the scarcity of useful information on fission-product release from fuels, it was necessary, in order to evaluate the safety of early nuclear reactors, to assume that 100% or a large percentage of the fission products would be released to the containment systems in nuclear reactor accidents.Thus early on conceptual evaluations of nuclear accidents began to paint dark pictures of huge numbers of civilian casualties. Unfortunately, these dark pictures. though not justified by research, still influence public concerns over nuclear safety. The Washington nuclear establishment, focused as it was on the development of a nuclear industry, did not understand the extent to which the public perception of nuclear power would be influenced by the concerns of reactor scientists. Thus by the late 1960's as the nuclear establishment's project was taking shape, the public's perception of the danger of that project was also growing. The nuclear establishment's opposition to further nuclear safety research, which had emerged during the 1960's, became item one in the case against nuclear power presented by a powerful and growing anti-nuclear movement.
In addition to its mistaken beliefe that the safety of light water reactors was established beyond reasonable doubt, the nuclear establishment had concluded that the liquid metal fast breeder reactor wasw by far the prefered line of development for the future of nuclear power. Yet scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory had been able to demonstrate that reactors cooled by liquid salts had the potential to offer numerous advantages over water or liquid metal cooled reactors. Not the least of those advantages lay in the relm of nuclear safety. Molten Salt nuclear technology has superior safety potential, but since the Washington nuclear establishment underestimated the importance of the nuclear safety problem, it did not considered MSR safety potential to be an important attribute.
I personally have no doubt that in most situations that reactors are extremely safe when judged by conventional industrial safety standards. Those standards, however, have not penetrated public perception of nuclear power, and we still face both a public and political leadership, which still believes that the consequences of a nuclear accident may be far worse, than is rationally possible, and hens reactors are far less safe, than experience suggests they are.
It is clear that LWRs are not 100% safe. The Fukushima Dai-ichi accident (or accidents) has demonstrated that at least some safety features of older reactors can be overwealmed by natural disasters. To date the consequences of the Dai-ichi accident have fallen far short of a catastrophy. But whether the public is aware of the distinction between an accident and a catastrophy is open to question. For the enemies of nuclear power, acident and catastrophy are the same thing.
It is clear however, that reactors that could have withstood the natural events that brought about the Dai-ichi accidents are possible. It is clear that better nuclear safety is possible. Better public information on nuclear safety is also possible. It is urgently important to move forwards with the development of safe, low cost and scaliable nuclear technology will be of vital importance for the future of sociate. We now have lss than 40 years to accomplish this. The nuclear safety issue must be resolved, and the public reassured that a nuclear future wqill be a safew future.