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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nuclear Mishaps: The Human Factor

Air Date: Week of

Following the recent nuclear power plant accidents in Japan and South Korea, US officials were quick to assure people that "it can't happen here." Commentator Suzanne Elston says technically, they’re right. But, she continues, lost in the assurances is the element of human error, which has been the cause of all major nuclear accidents.


CURWOOD: The recent nuclear mishaps in Japan and South Korea prompted some North American experts to claim that "it couldn't happen here." Commentator Suzanne Elston isn't so sure.

ELSTON: I have to admit, I do it myself. Every time I hear about a radiation leak or some kind of accident at a nuclear power plant, I immediately start figuring out why it couldn't happen in my neighborhood. Nuclear technology is so complex that each plant has something about it that makes it unique. So what we do is we hold those differences close to us, like some kind of nuclear security blanket.

But hiding from the threat of a potential nuclear disaster is a dangerous game. It's like some bizarre form of Russian Roulette, where the players know the gun is loaded but believe the bullets won't hurt them. So, "it can't happen here" has become the mantra of the international nuclear set.

After Three Mile Island, Soviet nuclear experts assured us that their reactors wouldn't have the same kind of problem. And they were right, because the Soviets have a different reactor design. After the terrible accident at Chernobyl, Canadian scientists assured the world that our CANDU reactors didn't pose a similar threat. They were right. They couldn't have exactly the same type of accident, because they don't have exactly the same technology.

Now, following the Japanese incident at Tokaimura, the Canadian and U.S. analysts are also correct. The type of accident that happened there could only happen in Japan. We don't use the same procedure to process our uranium. They were right. Technically, they're always right. But the technology isn't the issue. Human error caused every single one of these accidents. And nowhere in our nuclear equations do we allow for human error.

Science ceases to be pure science the minute you apply it. Until we can develop a technology that is totally independent of human input, then there will be accidents. If we must pursue the nuclear option, then we have to account for human imperfection. We have to abandon our arrogant assumption that accidents can't happen, and we have to learn how to include a chaos factor into the nuclear equation. Until we do, we're simply playing with a loaded gun.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Suzanne Elston is a syndicated columnist who lives on the north shore of Lake Ontario. She comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.



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