Watching the coverage of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station unfold on TV, I was reminded of my own close call with a nuclear emergency.
In 1988 I was a newly minted shift technical adviser at the South Texas Project, a power plant near the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Gilbert, at the time a Category 5 storm, was bearing down on us. I received word from plant management that all workers should leave except for critical plant personnel like myself. I called my wife and told her to go inland with our 4-month-old daughter. Eventually the storm weakened and turned south. But there was never a question: my team and I would stay, regardless of what happened.
The situation facing the 50 workers left at Fukushima is a nuclear operator’s worst nightmare. Fortunately, despite harrowing situations like mine, almost none of us will ever deal with anything like it. But the knowledge that a nuclear crisis could occur, and that we might be the only people standing in the way of a meltdown, defines every aspect of an operator’s life.
The field attracts a very particular kind of person. I became a nuclear worker in the 1980s, in the wake of the oil crises of the 1970s. Nuclear power, for all its risks, seemed like the best alternative, and people like me who signed up at the time saw ourselves as the guardians of America’s energy future. We were the ones who would prevent the risks of nuclear power from becoming a reality, who would keep the plants safe and, in turn, the country’s way of life secure.
The same spirit motivates today’s workers. Contrary to the depiction of nuclear operators as bumbling slackers in “The Simpsons,” the typical employee is more like a cross between a jet pilot and a firefighter: highly trained to keep a technically complex system running, but also prepared to be the first and usually only line of defense in an emergency.
Training to be a senior reactor operator takes up to two years and involves demonstrating one’s ability to process complex, sometimes contradictory information rapidly and under intense pressure. The training regimen also grinds into us the overwhelming importance of staying put in an emergency situation, even at great risk to our own safety. There are simply too many contingencies and too many functions that require close observation for an emergency to be handled remotely.
And so while the world wondered why the workers at the Fukushima plant didn’t flee, my fellow nuclear operators and I weren’t surprised. One employee is reported to have received a significant dose of radiation while trying to vent pressure on one of the reactor’s containment vessels. There is no question that this act saved countless lives. But there is also no question that the operator acted knowing full well that he could suffer long-term injury from doing so.
Those of us in the industry are also watching the management of the crisis. It’s easy to be critical, from a distance, and while I have yet to see anything that smacks of negligence or mishandling, a few obvious questions come to mind.
For one thing, considering the difficulties of managing a nuclear accident within a disaster zone, was the plant staff provided with the necessary technical support and equipment? It’s also clear that procedures need to be in place for better handling of the insatiable demand for information from the news media. Finally, given the multiple problems at Fukushima, we should revisit the standard protocol for dealing with a nuclear emergency, which assumes a problem with a single reactor, even at a multiunit site.
We will likely hear numerous stories of heroism over the next several days, of plant operators struggling to keep water flowing into the reactors, breathing hard against their respirators under the dim rays of a handheld flashlight in the cold, dark recesses of a critically damaged nuclear plant, knowing that at any moment another hydrogen explosion could occur.
These operators will be hailed as heroes, and deservedly so. But if they are like the rest of the tightly knit community of nuclear workers, they will simply say they were doing their job.
Michael Friedlander, a nuclear engineer.