“Fission Stories”: A Weekly UCS Series on Nuclear Power Safety

July 5, 2010 | 9:35 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

In January 1979, UCS published “The Nugget File,” a collection of short summarizes of incidents and accidents at nuclear power facilities. The accounts of these events had, for the most part, been withheld from the public prior to “The Nugget File.” UCS obtained the records from the vaults of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) using the Freedom of Information Act. The nuclear industry and the NRC had been touting nuclear power’s wondrous safety record. UCS released “The Nugget File” to expose the thorns on this nuclear rose and highlight the continuing work needed to improve the safety of nuclear power plants.

The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island Unit 2 in March 1979 changed the landscape in many ways. One of the changes involved the need for the NRC to widely share information on nuclear plant problems large and small. The NRC revamped its communication practices and began to broadcast lessons it learned from these incidents from one nuclear facility to all other facilities that might benefit from these warnings. It also began to make that information public.

While information on events like those exposed by “The Nugget File” was now in plain sight, it was far from being in plain English. Between the liberal use of acronyms, the heavy jargon index, and the high geek factor, the information released by the NRC was “nukespeak,” a special language barely discernible to anyone outside the nuclear fraternity.

In 1999, UCS’s Dave Lochbaum published “Fission Stories,” another collection of short summaries of incidents and events occurring at nuclear power facilities since “The Nugget File.” The source documents may have been readily available, but “Fission Stories” sought to translate the “nukespeak” into language humans could comprehend.

Why bother looking at incidents that are more than a decade old? The answer lies in two clichés – “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it” and “information is power.” Reflecting on the past can reveal positive behavior patterns to emulate and negative behavior patterns to avoid. Neglecting the past does not destine one to repeating mistakes, but it certainly takes away all reasonable excuses when it happens yet again.

Many of the problems of the past continue to be relevant to today’s reactors, as are shortcomings in the approaches plant operators and the NRC take for ensuring safety and enforcing regulations on an ongoing basis, and for dealing with crises when they arise.

We will revisit events chronicled in “The Nugget File” and “Fission Stories” by posting each week one of these stories—as well as narratives on miscues over the past decade—along with their relevance to current problems. There is no statute of limitations on the factors that caused these past problems. No miracle drug protects reactors today from repeating the problems tomorrow. The best protection remains knowledge. Increasing and maintaining awareness of past problems provides no absolute protection against their recurrence. But that awareness is the cheapest, most effective safety investment available.

The tone of some “Fission Stories” posts may be light. This does not mean that UCS takes nuclear safety lightly or that nuclear safety is a joke. But if something funny happens on the way to the nuclear forum, it too will be reflected upon.
For more information on nuclear safety issues, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.