The MIT Interdisciplinary Study states: “We do not believe there is a nuclear plant design that is totally risk free. In part, this is due to technical possibilities; in part due to workforce issues. Safe operation requires effective regulation, a management committed to safety, and a skilled work force.” (Ansolabehere et al., 2003, p.9.)
Serious, unresolved problems remain on all three fronts – regulation, management, and workforce skills. The safety culture varies considerably within and between nations operating nuclear power plants. As the MIT Study notes: “It is still an open question whether the average performers in the industry have yet incorporated an effective safety culture into their conduct of business.”
A report by the International Atomic Energy and the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency covering events during the 2002-2005 period stated (IAEA/NEA, 2006):
“About 200 events have been reported by the participating countries during that period… Almost all of the events reported during that period have already occurred earlier in one form or another. It shows that despite the existing exchange mechanisms in place at both national and international levels, corrective measures, which are generally well-known, may not reach all end-users, or are not always rigorously or timely applied. …
“Recently, some top regulators expressed their concerns with respect to the international effort devoted to operational experience. They notably noticed that:
• A worldwide observation is that operating experience feedback (OEF) needs to be much improved in the international arena.
• There is a tendency to consider that foreign OEF is not relevant.
• The global effort in the area of event reporting does not appear to be functioning as it should.
Schneider et al. (2007) state: “After accidents in Three Mile Island and Chernobyl a large number of measures were introduced in order to improve the safety during reactor operation: improvement of operational procedures, implementation of comprehensive quality systems, development of emergency operating procedures, intensive training of personal including simulator training, etc. All these measures were expected to result in significant improvements of operational safety during the following years. However, there is evidence … that despite these measures there was little or no further improvement during recent years and concerns have been expressed in many international forums regarding complacency in the industry.”
At the October 2003 meeting of the World Association of Nuclear Operators, chairman Hajimu Maedae of a creeping lethargy that begins with “loss of motivation to learn from others … overconfidence … (and) negligence in cultivating a safety culture due to severe pressure to reduce costs following the deregulation of the power market.” (MacLachlan, 2003)
The ageing of the global nuclear workforce, and the loss of expertise as waves of skilled workers reach retirement (a ‘silver tsunami’), will be a major challenge in coming years and decades (Hirsch et al., 2005).
The workforce challenge will be all the greater if nuclear power expands rapidly. Conversely, skills shortages pose an obstacle to rapid nuclear growth.
A likely scenario is modest growth of nuclear power to 2030, at which time a large majority of reactors will be either very young or very old (www.choosenuclearfree.net/renaissance). This has serious safety implications as reactors are most accident-prone in their early years (break-in phase) and in their old age (wear out phase). (Lochbaum, 2004; Hirsch et al., 2005)
The safety challenges will be greater in countries developing nuclear power for the first time, especially countries with limited technical and industrial bases, inadequate regulation, or widespread corruption. The International Panel on Fissile Materials (2010) notes: “A major effort … will be necessary to ensure that countries building nuclear power plants for the first time, or rapidly expanding their reactor fleet, put effective safety measures in place, including instilling a strong culture of safety and granting independent regulators the power, resources and expertise to do their jobs.”
Regulation is at best uneven between countries. Inadequate regulation is evident in advanced nuclear countries such as the US and Japan (as illustrated in the case studies below) and regulation has been problematic in Australia. Problems include ‘captured bureaucracies’, the revolving door between regulatory bodies and regulated organisations, and shortages of skilled personnel to adequately carry out regulatory functions.
Shreyans Jain, then newly-elected President of the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), stated in his acceptance speech in 2007 (WANO, 2007): “The key issues that demand world attention today, in my opinion, are those related to the ageing work force, ageing reactors, global increase in the fleet of nuclear power plants and probably, the hesitation of the younger generation to embrace this technology as a profession. It is also a fact that with the increased turnover of work force, the invaluable tacit knowledge, built up through years of experience, is steadily being lost. It is therefore absolutely essential for all of us to put on our thinking caps and evolve methods to tackle these serious issues.”
There are many points of intersection between safety and economics. South Africa illustrates the potential for economics to undermine safety. South Africa planned to develop ‘pebble bed’ gas-cooled reactors, claimed to be far less accident prone than conventional reactors. Those plans have been abandoned for economic reasons. South Africa also planned to purchase a number of ‘Generation 3’ reactors, but those plans were also abandoned for economic reasons. Now, plans are slowly being developed to purchase cheaper ‘Generation 2’ reactors. (MacLachlan, 2010)
Another important point of intersection between safety and economics concerns legislated caps on payouts in the event of an accident. One well known example is the Price-Anderson Act in the US. Lochbaum (2004) states: “Price-Anderson may prevent safety upgrades from being incorporated into new reactor designs. Without Price-Anderson, the added cost of developing and incorporating safety features is offset by reduced annual insurance premiums. With Price-Anderson providing equal liability protection regardless of risk, the cost of additional safety features becomes a financial impediment.”
Another point of intersection between safety and economics is the push to limit or abolish public participation in decision-making and licensing processes, a push which is driven by commercial imperatives. Lochbaum (2004) states that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s “Atomic Safety and Licensing Board has documented many examples of reactor safety improvements resulting from public participation …Unfortunately, the NRC, bowing to industry pressure, recently revised its licensing process to virtually eliminate public participation, except in the role of casual observer.”