Lessons Learned from “Lessons Learned”: The Evolution of Nuclear Power Safety after Accidents and Near-Accidents


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Edward D. Blandford and Michael M. May
Global Nuclear Future

As countries struggle to meet the electricity demands of their growing populations while also reducing their carbon footprints, many have turned to nuclear energy. The U.S. nuclear energy program may not increase significantly in the coming decades, but other countries, including many developing countries, have plans for rapid expansion. Even after the recent accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, the global trend toward expansion of nuclear energy has continued.

While serious accidents like Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl can provide invaluable lessons, the nuclear industry, nuclear regulators, and the research community must study minor incidents and near-accidents as well. These experiences often reveal not only how to decrease the likelihood that the same mistakes will occur, but also how to avoid larger accidents that may be foreshadowed in earlier, smaller incidents.

In this paper, Edward Blandford and Michael May enumerate the lessons from nuclear accidents and incidents, asking whether the nuclear energy community has indeed learned from those lessons. The authors argue that stakeholders must commit to ongoing improvement of their protocols and standards. Each nuclear incident—no matter its size—underlines the importance of pursuing high standards of safety, security, and proliferation resistance.

For more than five decades, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has played an integral role in nonproliferation studies, beginning with a special issue of Daedalus on arms control published in 1960. Today, the Academy’s Global Nuclear Future (GNF) Initiative is examining the safety, security, and nonproliferation implications of the global spread of nuclear energy. Through innovative scholarship and behind-the-scenes interactions with international leaders and stakeholders, the Initiative is developing pragmatic recommendations for managing the emerging nuclear order.

The GNF Initiative is supported in part by grants from Carnegie Corporation of New York, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Flora Family Foundation, and Fred Kavli and the Kavli Foundation. The Academy is grateful to these supporters and to the authors for advancing the work of the Initiative. I want to express my thanks to the GNF principal investigators: Steven E. Miller, codirector (Harvard University); Scott D. Sagan, codirector (Stanford University); Robert Rosner, senior advisor (University of Chicago); Stephen M. Goldberg, research coordinator (Argonne National Laboratory); and Kimberly Durniak, program officer (American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

Leslie Berlowitz
President and William T. Golden Chair
American Academy of Arts and Sciences