Nuclear Risk Accounting 101

November 12, 2013 | 6:00 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

Fission Stories #150

On August 1, 2013, I made a presentation to a graduate class in nuclear engineering at the University of Pittsburgh. Professor Larry Foulke, past president of the American Nuclear Society, generously invited me to participate in his class the past two years. Last year, I talked about a report UCS released about risk analyses performed for nuclear power plants. This year, I outlined a process long used within the nuclear industry to guard against proposed modifications to plant systems from inadvertently decreasing safety or security elsewhere and described how it should be also applied when making risk-informed decisions.

Basically, one cannot balance a checkbook without a complete and accurate tally of all checks written against and funds deposited to it. With some checks and/or deposits missing, one can use a calculator to add up the known amounts. But that total may, or may not, represent the checkbook’s balance. And one may not know whether that total is higher or lower than the amount available in the account.

Likewise, one cannot make risk-informed decisions without proper consideration of all generic and plant-specific safety hazards known to be unresolved. One can add up numbers to quantify risk, but that total fails to reflect reality when known hazards are neglected. Yet, this incomplete accounting and impaired risk decision-making happens again and again.

For a more detailed description of the risk accounting problem and our recommendation solution, check out my presentation  to the University of Pittsburgh graduate class.

Our Takeaway

First and foremost, my sincerest appreciation goes to Professor Larry Foulk for inviting me to participate in his class these past two years. Professor Foulk told me several times that he does not agree with every position I take but feels it important to be aware of these positions. He invites me to participate in his classes to extend that awareness to his students. And I have benefitted in return from greater awareness of when Professor Foulk and his students agree, and disagree, with my views. “Information is Power” is an old cliché. Frank dialogues and open communications, like those that Professor Foulk fosters, strengthens all participants in the discussions.

Second, “Safety in Numbers” is another cliché. Perhaps so, but nuclear plant safety risk accounting will not yield safe numbers until all known and unresolved hazards are properly considered.


“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.