Lessons Learned from Japan — and Elsewhere

The recent earthquake and tsunami spurred one of the world’s most serious nuclear accidents. It was a defining moment in the history of nuclear power and it is a catalyst for the NRC to review how we do our job.

But it’s important to note that the Japanese emergency is not the first catalyst for dramatic changes in the way the NRC works. While our regulations have consistently changed and improved over time, there were three paradigm-shifting events that brought about dramatic developments in our approach to nuclear risk, safety and security.

The first of these events was the Browns Ferry fire in 1975. The incident started when a plant employee, using a candle to search for air leaks, accidentally set a fire. This was a standard way to check for leaks in coal-fired power plants and – as crazy as it sounds now — it had been carried over to the nuclear industry. (It may surprise you to learn that one of the preferred methods for plant personnel to extinguish these not-uncommon fires was by beating them out with their flashlights.)

In the aftermath of the Browns Ferry fire, the NRC instituted a number of changes to ensure that nuclear power plants more effectively prevented fires and could react more successfully if they did happen. The Browns Ferry fire also spurred the development and incorporation of modern risk analysis into the NRC’s nuclear safety program.

The second of these defining events was the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. As the most serious accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear industry, this event precipitated changes in nuclear safety so numerous and far-reaching that it’s difficult to overstate the impact. We overhauled our approach to emergency management, developed systematic approaches to evaluating operational experience, shifted toward more risk informed regulation, significantly expanded our resident inspector program, and reorganized the NRC.

But perhaps the most important insight we gained from Three Mile Island was the central role of people in plant safety. Before this accident, engineering and equipment were considered the foundation for nuclear safety. The Three Mile Island accident, with its operator errors, changed that. This important insight led to an increased focus on human performance, and the revamping of training and staffing requirements for operators. Even today, more than 30 years later, the importance of people to plant safety continues to resonate throughout the NRC and the nuclear industry.

The third major event was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Although not a nuclear event, the attacks spurred the NRC to take immediate, aggressive actions aimed at the security of the nation’s nuclear facilities and materials. The long-term effect of September 11th extends far beyond those early steps. By keeping us focused on the ever-evolving and highly dynamic nature of the threat environment, 9/11 has left an enduring imprint on our approach to nuclear security.

These three significant events transformed how we understand the nature of nuclear safety and security, and what we needed to do to protect the public. The events in Japan have the potential to raise new concerns and offer lessons that may evolve our understanding of nuclear safety. I can assure you that our ongoing safety review will be systematic and methodical, and conducted with an appropriate sense of urgency. I expect there will be lessons learned and changes made as a result of this tragedy.

Gregory Jaczko
Chairman, NRC
Moderator note: An op-ed by Chairman Jaczko on nuclear safety is available here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gregory-jaczko/ensuring-nuclear-safety_b_867666.html.
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