We Must Cooperate on Nuclear Safety

A nuclear accident anywhere has the potential to be a nuclear accident everywhere. That is why it is encouraging that the United Nations this week is examining the lessons and implications of the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in Japan, the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.

The Chernobyl accident in Ukraine was attributed initially to workers who shut off key emergency equipment during a test and then ignored warnings that the reactor was out of control. The accident in Japan followed a powerful earthquake and tsunami that swept over the northern part of the country.

But both disasters were also the result of failures in the safety cultures of Japan and the Soviet Union. Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency, for instance, was never really independent from the nuclear industry or the country’s powerful Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Company, had a long history of disregarding safety concerns and a woefully weak safety culture but was allowed to operate with minimal government oversight.

What we need now are tough, system-oriented safety standards and much closer cooperation between countries and their regulators. The United Nations should also urge its members to forge a balance between national sovereignty and international responsibility, when it comes to nuclear safety. Radiation fallout doesn’t discriminate or care about national boundaries.

This approach can begin at a regional level.

As a start, the Persian Gulf countries should be entitled to know the details of the safety measures for Iran’s just-completed nuclear reactor in the coastal city of Bushehr and for the four reactors under construction by the United Arab Emirates in Abu Dhabi. Persian Gulf countries would all be vulnerable to radiation fallout and water contamination from a nuclear accident in either of those countries.

The same logic also applies to the Dimona reactor in Israel and ones planned in Egypt and Jordan. All three countries should open their books on the safety of those plants. Such an initiative would force these neighboring countries to engage in a mutually beneficial nuclear diplomacy. One of the consequences might be to build better overall better relations.

Countries that operate (or plan to operate) nuclear reactors should cooperate with one another and enact policies to fix and strengthen the safety culture of their nuclear regulators and operators, before something goes seriously wrong — again.

The disasters at the Chernobyl and Fukushima plants are sober reminders, once more, of what the Nobel physicist Richard P. Feynman said in the context of another technological system failure, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986.

“When playing Russian roulette, the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next,” he said.

By Najmedin Meshkati, a professor at the Viterbi School of Engineering at University of Southern California, studies the safety culture of the nuclear power industry around the world.

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