Like all of you, I’ve been watching with increasing dismay the gulf oil fiasco. Amid the scenes of gushing crude, oil-soaked birds, and iridescent marshes it is easy to forget that good and competent people are working around the clock trying to stop the oil. At some point they will succeed and we can get on with Phase 2: Endless litigation and interminable government hearings. Will any good come from all the Sturm und Drang? If the last such accident of national consequence is any indication, perhaps the answer is yes.
After Three Mile Island (TMI) the U.S. nuclear power industry went through all the Kubler-Ross stages:
• Denial: This appears to be much ado about nothing.
• Anger: Dammit… who screwed up, whose fault is this?
• Bargaining: Whoa, slow down with all the proposed regulations…let’s just reason together.
• Depression: This industry is dead; there’s no way we can afford all these new rules and retrofits.
• Acceptance: We’re still America’s best energy hope; we’re going to come back stronger than ever.
After TMI the nuclear industry did some soul-searching and decided: One more event like this and we are doomed as an industry, so let’s make sure it doesn’t happen again. And many of the innovations that followed TMI have contributed to the industry’s excellent performance and budding renaissance. These include:
• Creating the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations to set benchmarks, identify and exchange power plant best practices, and generally pursue operational excellence.
• Creating the World Association of Nuclear Operators to do more or less the same thing across national borders
• Funding ambitious government research projects that investigated exactly how nuclear accidents initiate and progress, including a major initiative on the human factors component
• Conducting large-scale experiments to duplicate the TMI events and learn exactly what happened, down to very subtle chemical effects occurring inside the nuclear fuel
• Nuclear utility competitors pooling their resources to sponsor their own accident prevention research
• New accident detection and prevention technologies mandated for new plants and retrofit into existing plants
Looking at this list, I see a path – after this oil well is capped and the cleanup is behind us – towards a much safer and better run offshore oil industry. Oil will be in our future for all of our lifetimes. Let’s make sure we do it right.
And oh by the way nuclear industry, it’s been 30+ years since TMI. Are you still looking over your shoulder and remembering your 1979 lesson of eternal vigilance? – Dennis Owen
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