06/06/2011 11:49 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2011

The Real Nuclear Disaster

I have a unique perspective on Japan's continuing nuclear fallout, having covered the Chernobyl accident as a reporter for the New York Times and Three Mile Island as a reporter for Newsday. I also covered thousands of hearings, sources, issues, promises and solutions in the 1970s and 1980s, and my 1981 series on abuses at the $5 billion Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island led to the only cancellation of a new commercial reactor after it started operating.

It's not the technology that will do nuclear in. This was clear 40 years ago, and it's still clear today. On paper, it's a safer and cheaper technology than fossil fuels. Rather, it's the inability of people to operate it safely or cheaply, at least the way reactors are operated today. As cynics used to say, "Nuclear power is a technology designed by geniuses and run by idiots." Watching the keystone cop performance of Japanese utility and public officials, the maxim is alive and well. We don't have the institutions and the operators capable of handing the technology.

The solution, still ignored, is for an international cadre of specialists without allegiance to the profit-motives of utility companies or the political motives of governments. The model, often cited 30 years ago, is that of the late Admiral Hyman Rickover's U.S. nuclear navy operators, for which safety was inbred as the one and only goal. Without it, we'll keep having accidents until the technology falls under the weight of stupid mistakes. Already Switzerland and Germany are phasing out reactors, and other countries are considering the same.

A case in point. One of the reasons that Three Mile Island (TMI) did not turn into big disaster, as Japan did, is that experts outside of the utility company owner took control of the accident almost immediately. TMI, in Harrisburg, PA, was so close to New York and Washington that expert regulatory staff showed up almost spontaneously, as did some of the country's leading nuclear scientists from Brookhaven Laboratory on Long Island.

So the day after the accident, when the operations head of the company, General Public Utilities, declared to a crowded press conference that "The crisis is over," the head of U.S. nuclear reactor regulation, Harold Denton, had a different theme. He held his own press conference an hour later and pronounced, "The crisis is not over." From that point on, the outside experts essentially took over management of the accident from the utility. They addressed and solved a problem of potentially explosive hydrogen gas. No one died, the unharmed sister reactor operated again and people moved back to areas around the plant.

By contrast, the Japanese utility got help from almost no one until much later. Left on their own, they were slow and in denial. Hydrogen exploded. All reactors were damaged. Nuclear meltdowns occurred. People died. A wide area is contaminated. While no comparisons are perfect, it is fair to say that if you don't act fast and call lots of people for assistance immediately after a nuclear accident, you're in big trouble.

And the West shouldn't be gloating over Japan's mistakes. When radiation from the Japan reactor winds up in Pennsylvania, this is a worldwide issue with global repercussions. Why didn't the U.S., or Britain, or others immediately insist that they help the Japanese? Why weren't experts flying to Tokyo in immediately, and in droves? Why didn't the Japanese government implore the world's leading experts to intervene? In other words, it is a certainty that the accident would not have been as bad had the lessons of Three Mile Island been observed. This is what I mean by human failings. The ability to minimize the accident's damage was available; it wasn't pursued.

Even before the accident, the design itself was poor in that the Japanese did not use the best available system. With Chernobyl, the British had warned the Russians that their reactor did not have a radiation containment system, or sufficient back-up systems, to control foreseeable accidents. The Russians arrogantly disagreed. Chernobyl, 26 years later, is still a dead zone and will be for hundreds of years. When I interviewed Valery Legasov, the head of the Soviet nuclear system, for The Times, he personally apologized for not following the advice of British experts. Sadly, burdened by his guilt, he later committed suicide.

And yet, the Japanese did the same thing. Who in their right mind builds back-up diesel generators so they get flooded by a failed seawall? Redundant systems are supposed to be independent and immune to cascading failures. To compound that, instead of getting new generators by plane immediately, the Japanese waited a week to order them. A weekM, when in a nuclear accident, seconds matter.

All of which would be fixed if there were a centralized international authority with a single design and spare parts and equipment available to be transported on a moment's notice. Instead, national and corporate hubris is preventing such a safer system from being implemented. The closest thing we have to that is in France, and even regulators there have, amid closer examination, found problems. And weakness are surfacing in the U.S. now too, on safer reactor and equipment designed not pursued.

The public is right to be concerned about nuclear power, and right to bar new ones. Even setting aside the long-term issue of isolating nuclear wastes, the worldwide nuclear industry just doesn't have its act together. In other words, nuclear power is still a technology designed by geniuses and..."

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