Back to School

May 9, 2012 | 9:41 pm
Dave Lochbaum
Former contributor

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of serving on panels during symposia conducted by Oberlin Shansi at Oberlin College in Ohio and by the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law & Policy and the Swanson School of Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.

I spoke about the lessons learned from last year’s Fukushima accident during a session on regulation, enforcement, and reform policies at Oberlin. Looking past Fukushima at disasters like Titanic, Challenger, Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon, I noted two recurring causes: (1) failure to comply with established safety protocols, and (2) insufficient margins when hazards exceeded those assumed when establishing safety protocols. I described these two recurring causes and recommended ways to address them in the future. My presentation is available here.)

“America’s Nuclear Future Must Not Mirror its Past” was the title of my presentation at the University of Pittsburgh symposium hosted by Gov. Richard Thornburgh. The bathtub curve framed my talk about managing the risks associated with both aging and new reactors. The bathtub curve plots the chance of failure as a function of age. Failure rates are highest early in life (i.e., the break-in phase) and late in life (e.g., the wear-out phase). All of our reactors are heading towards, if not already in, the wear-out phase. And two new reactors are under construction in Georgia. If finished, they begin operating in the break-in-phase of the curve.

I expressed our position that the best protection against high failure rates is a federal regulator setting the safety bar at the right height and aggressively ensuring all reactors hurdle it rather than limbo beneath it. I then described times when that regulator, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, acted more like Sgt. Schultz than a nuclear Robocop. I also described a recent event when the NRC acted like the much-needed nuclear Robocop. The future of nuclear power in America really depends on whether NRC is more like Robocop or more like Sgt. Schultz. (My presentation is available here.)

The symposia organizers at Oberlin and the University of Pittsburgh brought together experts from around the globe to discuss nuclear policy tactics and strategies. Academic environments are perfectly suited for these discussions. They are neutral grounds, or as neutral as possible for such a polarizing topic. The panels included speakers with diverse, and sometimes diametrically opposing, viewpoints. The campus settings enable passionate expression of positions while discouraging personal and confrontational encounters.

In short, these academic environments provide audiences with considerable information allowing them to think through and reach their own informed decisions. UCS thanks Oberlin Shansi and the Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law & Policy and the Swanson School of Engineering for arranging these events and for including me in them.

I benefited greatly from hearing the positions of the other experts and audience members and hope I was able to return the favor.