Joe Cirincione

(This article was co-authored by Paul Carroll, Program Director at Ploughshares Fund. Published in Huffington Post – March 25,   2011)

On March 11, there were 443 nuclear reactors operating around the world. On March 12, that number shrunk by four.

An earthquake, a tsunami and a record of poor safety management converged to create one of the worst nuclear accidents in history. The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plant is still unfolding and, after some progress earlier this week, has again taken a grim turn with signs that at least one of the reactors may have been breached. Even under the best of circumstances, it is likely that four of the six Fukushima Daiichi reactors are a total loss. Japanese officials are considering what some believe inevitable–entombing the reactors in mounds of sand and concrete, as was done at Chernobyl. If so, the four sarcophagi on the Japanese shoreline will become stark reminders of the limits of human control.

It is one of the great achievements of humankind that we can split the atom. The nuclear energy released, however is inherently dangerous–whether in a power plant or a bomb. And not just dangerous like skydiving or gasoline tanks may be dangerous, but dangerous on an immense scale and duration.

Atoms for War and Peace

The world learned of the dawn of the atomic age with the bombing of Hiroshima. The immense energy symbolized by that mushroom cloud inspired both fear and respect. Since then, the inherently dual nature of nuclear power has been developed and deployed widely for both military and civilian purposes. At the height of the Cold War, American and Russian arsenals topped 68,000 nuclear weapons, while nuclear power plants became commonplace, spreading to 30 countries, accounting for 14 percent of the world’s electrical production today.

Hiroshima and Fukushima, of course, are very different in fundamental ways. Hiroshima was an intentional bombing that happened in a blink, killing or injuring 135,000 people and destroying 70,000 buildings. Fukushima is the result of unprecedented natural disasters overwhelming safety systems with its consequences for the civilian population metered out over days, weeks or years.

But the connections between the two are just as fundamental. Both involve our collective deception that we can always control the nuclear machines we invented. We cannot. There have been dozens of close calls, false alerts and near launches in the nuclear age. In one instance, a US bomber crash dropped two hydrogen bombs over North Carolina. Five out of six of the bomb’s arming devices activated — only the sixth prevented an actual nuclear detonation.

August 29, 2007 provides a more recent reminder. On that day the U.S. Air Force lost track of the equivalent of 60 Hiroshima bombs for 36 hours. A B-52 bomber flew across the country with six nuclear missiles tucked under its wings. Unknown to the air crews, the missiles were each armed with a 150-kiloton nuclear warhead, ten times the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. The crew thought they had loaded conventional, non-nuclear missiles. The worst news? No one noticed they were missing. If anyone had asked 20 top experts before this event if anything like this was possible, they all would have said absolutely not.

Similarly, top experts in the nuclear power industry would have said Fukushima was impossible. In fact, safety plans for nuclear reactors around the world are based on the unlikely never happening. Cost considerations encourage designing plants to withstand likely earthquakes and natural disasters, but not all those that are possible.

The crisis in Japan has triggered a wave of concern around the world. Construction of plants is being delayed, renewal of licenses for existing but aging plants are being reconsidered, and investors for the already expensive new reactors have become more skittish. The nuclear renaissance heralded over the past few years may be dying.

Pathways to Safety

Nuclear energy — whether in a bomb or a power plant — always risks getting beyond our control. With bombs, there is a strong and growing global consensus that their time has passed, that their risks greatly outweigh their benefits. International security leaders increasingly say that we must move quickly and steadily to eliminate them.

There is no such a consensus on nuclear energy. But as long as we rely on nuclear energy we must do more to ensure it is run safely. President Obama has called for a 90-day review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) of U.S. plants. This is a prudent step, but the minimum that is needed. The review must be more expansive and more independent.

The public will only be assured if an independent body, such as the National Academy of Sciences, reviews the safety of U.S. nuclear plants. Some have called for internationalizing such a review; this would also increase the credibility of such a task force. Further, the review should be extended to the nuclear facilities and materials in national defense sectors — we already split atoms, we needn’t split the safety and security aspects across bureaucracies. Finally, don’t make this a one-time process. Establish expert and credible standing teams that consistently and thoroughly scrutinize our nuclear safety.

Shima means “island” in Japanese. We must make sure that Hiro- and Fuku- do not remain islands in our collective experience, but rather lead to an improved and sustained nuclear safety culture.