Darlington: Management of Nuclear Accidents

After Fukushima it became impossible to deny that serious nuclear accidents will occur from time to time and that more attention must be paid to mitigating their effects. In particular an important problem is how to effectively and efficiently evacuate the people likely to be affected by the radiation produced in the accident.
I should declare a bias at the start of this piece. In the 1960’s, as a young naval reserve officer, I did a two week course at the now-defunct Canadian Civil Defence College in Arnprior, Ontario. The College was an excellent school with all manner of training aids including simulated collapsed buildings for hands-on training in rescue, facilities for mass feeding of evacuees, demonstrations of how to set up casualty clearing stations, radiation monitoring and decontamination stations and so forth back in the day when it was believed that a nuclear war was survivable. From that brief experience I certainly didn’t become an expert in emergency planning but I did gain a lasting appreciation for what would be involved in assisting the victims of a nuclear accident. It is indeed a formidable task best left to experts and the key to success is a flexible well-established Command and Control structure that can deal with the accident situation as it evolves.
The point is that the population affected by an emergency need to feel there is a strong and capable authority in charge. This means there must be a good alerting system and very good communications as the accident unfolds. I used to show my nuclear engineering students the 1999 PBS documentary Meltdown at Three Mile Island. In the film politicians, media, engineers and local residents were brought together twenty years after the accident to share their experiences including the confusion over what was happening at the plant and the contradictory orders to evacuate. Jimmy Carter, then President of the United States, and Dick Thornburgh, then Governor of Pennsylvania, were both unable to get clear information on the accident and local municipal officials were left completely in the dark.
Similarly in the documentary Battle of Chernobyl Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the USSR at the time, says he couldn’t find out what was happening in the first two days and in the end he had to resort to asking the KGB, the secret police, to find out for him the situation at Chernobyl. The reports on the Fukushima accident show that some authorities didn’t share information with others on radiation and in fact some people were evacuated to areas of higher radiation. The organizations operating all three reactors were more of a hindrance than a help and mainly confined themselves to issuing soothing reassurances to the public. For example, Gorbachev was told on the first day of the accident that the Chernobyl reactor was so safe it could be placed in Red Square with no resulting harm. Met Ed, the TMI utility and TEPCO, the Fukushima operator, were notoriously poor at communications not only with the public but also with government and the media.
What comes across strongly in all these accidents is the overriding importance of effective communications and the need for a centralized authority to coordinate and implement all aspects of dealing with the accident. It was clear at the Darlington hearings that OPG and the CNSC in particular had little understanding of how the existing organizations in place to deal with emergencies would operate. Representatives of the Durham Emergency Management Office and Emergency Management Ontario were called upon to be questioned at the hearings but my observation is that the Commission was unable to understand their message. At one point the CNSC president was asking the cool disembodied voice of an EMO official present by teleconference if he could give him “a plan he could hold in his hand” – I expected the song Call me maybe to start playing in the background.
My first recommendation is that the Emergency Management organizations have absolute control of the response to nuclear emergencies with offsite consequences. Otherwise there are too many other organizations and politicians that would meddle in the situation to create a total fiasco. I would further recommend that much more funding be invested in EM organizations particularly in areas around the reactor sites. This is a “no regrets” option since a higher level of preparedness would also have a positive impact on non-nuclear disasters.
In an on-site emergency the accidents to date have taught us that it was the fire fighters and local plant staff who fought to bring their reactors under control. The troop of lavishly paid suits power companies trot out for public performances only gave bogus public reassurances. Much is owed to the courage of the firemen of Chernobyl and the fifty men who stayed at Fukushima. I would strongly recommend that the OPG types stop drawing circles around their reactors based on dubious PSA calculations and instead put their efforts and their money into preparing and supporting the boots on the ground that will have to deal with an emergency.
Emergency management is far too important to be neglected because an accident is thought to be improbable.

One Response to “Darlington: Management of Nuclear Accidents”

  1. George Ishack Says:

    Dear Mr. Jackson,
    Your “analysis” of the Fukushima accident, in my view, completely misses the point. It is analogous to arguing that, in order to reduce road fatalities, drivers should only be allowed to drive tanks or armoured vehicles.

    The root causes were: under-design, operational “short cuts,” a (very?) weak regulatory system, and complacency. The first and fourth of those points were expounded in a “Generic Study” that was undertaken about 25 years ago by an international working group; when the Japanese members of the working group (at that time) were apprised of the findings, their reaction was “But in Japan, we do things differently…..”

    There are of course other facts which corroborate this view. One striking observation is that it is practically impossible to find high radiation levels (as reported in the news – which could have been false) in food sold at the grocery store, three days after a radiation release! If those high levels were indeed correct, the only explanation is that the levels were ALWAYS high – they were simply either not measured, or not reported previously……and this would go back to complacency, laxness in reporting violations, laxness in enforcing regulations, or a mix.

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