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Fri Apr 6, 2012, 09:28 PM

When Redundant Safety Systems Fail: The Peril of Blind Faith

When Redundant Safety Systems Fail: The Peril of Blind Faith
By Roger Witherspoon

Last June, as the world watched the metastasizing radiological disaster spreading from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex in Japan, industry leaders gathered at an International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Vienna to discuss the impact on future nuclear development. John Ritch, head of the industry’s World Nuclear Association, said it was important to emphasize that there have been 14,500 “rector years” of safe nuclear operation.

That figure has been widely circulated since, as nuclear proponents assured local media of the safety record of the technologically complex industry. But an examination of that figure may be less sanguine.

It is based on the cumulative years of operation of 582 nuclear reactors worldwide over the course of the history of commercial nuclear power: no individual reactor operated for 14,500 years. But simple division reveals the average reactor would have just under 26 years’ operating experience. Out of the total of 582 reactors 137 have shut down permanently for a variety of reasons. And all of the reactors operated safely – until the day they didn’t.

That 26 years of experience with each reactor operating today could be a reassuring figure – except that there have been 12 nuclear accidents resulting in full or partial meltdowns. History and simple division, therefor, reveal that the nuclear industry suffers its worst accidents at some plant – despite their experience, safety culture, and redundant safeguards – approximately every two years.

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