Humans, Nukes and Risk Assessment: A Dangerous Mix

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Workers spray water to cool down the spent nuclear fuel in reactor No. 4 at Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power planty, March 22, 2011.

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Bill Borchardt, the commission's director for operations made a fair enough point when he remarked to the Associated Press that he and other regulators have "asked ourselves the question every single day: 'Should we take regulatory action based upon the latest information?'"

What he meant by that is should they take action based on the latest turns in the Japan accident in particular — and the smart answer to that kind of question is generally, no. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a similar argument when he observed that the middle of an environmental emergency is never a good time to make long term energy policy. But that doesn't mean it isn't a very good time to examine some of your bedrock assumptions. And here the NRC is falling down.

Borchardt recently — and alarmingly — told the Associated press, "I'm 100% confident in the review that we've done and we continue to do every single day that we have a sufficient basis to...conclude that the U.S. plants continue to operate safely." Hundred percent doctrines are as foolhardy as the 1% kind, and the NRC's own track record makes that clear.

As TIME's Eben Harrell reported on, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has issued a report of what it calls 14 nuclear near-misses in 2010 alone, all of which should theoretically have been prevented by the NRC. Flooding in a Joliet, Ill. plant; a roof leak leading to electrical shorts in an Annapolis, Md. plant; stuck valves in a Diablo Canyon, Calif. plant which went undetected for 18 months, were all among the commission's white knuckle moments.

It's the California plants, of course, that cause the most worry, since the state's sweeping coastline and extreme tectonic instability so closely mirror Japan's. The state legislature is raising the pressure on utility companies to delay relicensing of any nuclear power plants until new, three-dimensional seismic mapping can be conducted of any relevant faults, including those off coast that could cause tsunamis. The plant operators themselves are resisting, which is certainly to be expected, but post-Fukushima, their arguments pack a lot less punch. Operators of the San Onofre plant near San Diego, for example, point to the towering 30-ft. seawall that should surely keep their plant safe from any monster wave they're likely to get. That's a fair enough assumption, except for the fact that it's the same one the Fukushima designers made — until the very moment a 33-ft. tsunami overtopped their wall, washed out their back-up generators and set the entire long drama in motion.

"It's time to revisit the safety of these plants in light of what we have learned from Japan," Calif. State Senator Ellen Corbett understatedly told the AP. Corbett points to the 2-3% annual risk of a major quake in California and a 46% chance of one that exceeds 7.6 magnitude occurring sometime over the next 30 years.

Ultimately, that kind of cold number crunching has to be part of any long-term safety plan. But as the NRC begins its 90-day review — with periodic updates required at 30 and 60 days — they ought to keep in mind that common sense, cool heads and an utter absence of hubris must be equally big parts of the mix. Disasters go from being remote to real in an eyeblink. The key is to have the seawalls in place — both literal and regulatory — before the inevitable surprises happen.

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