Could a Similar Nuclear Crisis Happen in the United States?

The crisis in Japan is a sobering reminder that nuclear power is dangerous. It is not hard to imagine a nuclear crisis developing at any reactor under extreme circumstances.

The truth is, America’s nuclear power stations have the same vulnerabilities as the nuclear reactors in Japan, or those in any other country. Any combination of events that resulted in a loss of power to the primary and backup cooling systems for the reactors, or the cooling systems for the spent fuel pools often on-site, could initiate the same kind of crisis as what we are witnessing in Japan.

Risk factors include natural forces — like earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods — in addition to human factors — including power outages, accidents, or operator error. These risk factors become more serious as the infrastructure at nuclear reactors age. There are almost certainly other risk factors that are not currently on our radar screen. It is not hard to imagine a combination of factors that could lead to loss of control at any nuclear reactor. The technology is inherently dangerous.

While the odds of a nuclear accident may be low — the consequences of such an accident are potentially so high that we should not downplay the seriousness of the possibility. Especially when the signs are clear that our risk assessment capabilities are imperfect at best. Tokyo Electric Power Company planned for a maximum earthquake of magnitude 7.9 at Fukushima Daiichi. No one expected that an earthquake as strong as 9.0 — 12 times more powerful than the maximum forecast — would occur off of the coast.

Similarlly, BP didn’t take the risk of a blowout at a deep-sea well seriously enough. Then, in June 2010, the company’s well blew up, the drilling platform burned and sank, and the Gulf of Mexico filled with oil.

Along the same lines, financial institutions didn’t take the risk of an economic collapse seriously enough. For years, they advocated for deregulation and invented new types of risky financial products to increase revenues. Then in September 2008, the weight of years of poor decisions took the world economy to the brink of collapse.

The report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission earlier in 2011 sheds some relevant light on human nature:

We conclude that dramatic failures of corporate governance and risk management at many systemically important financial institutions were a key cause of this crisis. […]

Despite the expressed view of many on Wall Street and in Washington that the crisis could not have been foreseen or avoided, there were warning signs. The tragedy was that they were ignored or discounted. […]

The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand, and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public. Theirs was a big miss, not a stumble.

The same is true of any nuclear crisis. By building nuclear power plants and extending their licenses to operate, we are creating risks that did not exist before. We introduce the possibility of consequences that we may not be able to manage.

But if we do not build nuclear power plants, we do not create these risks.

It is as simple as that. We have to ask whether we would be willing to have what is happening at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear facility happen here in America. If not, we should — at minimum — reconsider expanding the role of nuclear power in our country.