Nuclear Safety Essay

Nuclear Safety

            The world population increases at a rate unprecedented before the 20th century.  From 6 billion in 1999, the population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2042 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2007).  Such a rise will consequently result to a greater energy need.  With the controversy surrounding the use of fossil fuels because of its major contribution in global climate change, other energy sources are being tapped.  Nuclear energy is seen to be one of the viable, although not any less controversial, alternatives.  The disasters on Three Mile Island in 1979 and on Chernobyl in 1986 had a negative impact on how the public regarded nuclear reactors.  Nuclear energy is at times seen as more hazardous than beneficial.  On a practical point of view however, the nuclear tragedies mentioned above had a positive effect on existing nuclear industries.  Although long before the Chernobyl accident happened, it had been recognized that “an organization’s belief and attitudes, manifested in its policies and procedures, affects its safety performance”, it was after the Chernobyl tragedy and because of it that the concept of safety culture was developed (Ostrom, Wilhelmsen and Kaplan, 1993).  O’Hara (2000) emphasized that if the nuclear power industry wishes to compete with the conventional power industry, it has to have “superior human performance and an organizational culture that values safety”.  Wert (2003) believed in the same principle.  He said that a nuclear facility couldn’t survive if it doesn’t have a correct safety culture.  According to Wert:

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     A good nuclear safety culture (NSC) is a work environment where safety ethics permeates   the organization and people’s behavior focuses on accident prevention through critical self-assessment, pro-active identification of management and technical problems, and appropriate, timely, and effective resolution of the problems before they become crises. (“Nuclear Safety Culture” section, para. 1)

Indeed, an organization, whether nuclear or not, can have an effective safety culture if it has carefully assessed the hazards involved in its operation and enforces policies and procedures that would prevent such risks from happening or prevent accidents from escalating to a crisis level should it happen.

Risk Assessment

            The Health and Safety Executive (2006) offers a simplistic definition of risk assessment: “It’s a careful examination of what, in your work, could cause harm to people, so that you can weight up whether you’ve taken enough precautions or should do more to prevent harm”.  Basically an analytical tool, risk assessment has greatly improved nuclear plant design and operations.  The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), responsible for ensuring that the operation of nuclear facilities it licenses will pose no threat to public health and safety, supports the development and use of such a tool. (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2007 February 20).

Risk assessment of a nuclear plant or facility involves looking at the whole range of plant operations from fuel fabrication to the disposal of high-level toxic waste.  From all possible events determined, combinations that could possibly lead to an accident are identified.  Using a computer model, potential sequences and combination of events, including thousands of possible causes of equipment failure are modeled (Nuclear Energy Institute, 2002 March).  And since the tragedy at Three Mile Island was partly caused by human error, when “an operator disabled a safety system that was correcting a water flow problem because the operator believed that the instrumentation was reporting inaccurate information” (O’Hara, 2002), critical worker actions and all possible human errors are also integrated in the model.  NRC (2002) refers to the whole modeling process as Probability Risk Assessment (PRA).   Such a model can provide important insights on nuclear power plant operation such as: the most likely events (or combination of events) that could lead to a reactor meltdown, plant systems and equipment that are more prone to accidents; and operational practices and procedures that are important in avoiding or mitigating accidents (Nuclear Energy Institute, 2002).

The knowledge gained from the model will be useless if not coupled with actions to be implemented to avert the hazards identified by the model.  PRA techniques are not meant to be stand-alone tools but are to be used as basis for decision-making and risk management.

Risk Management

After evaluating the risks involved in the plant operation, risk management is concerned with the actions to be taken to “eliminate, reduce, mitigate, transfer or simply learn to live with risks” (Gough, n.d.).  Risk management can be understood as the combined process of risk assessment and risk control or simply a step that follows the determination of risks involved in the operation.  Risk management activities may include designing and building safer reactors, determine how to transport and store radioactive materials in the safest way possible, and to “develop risk methodology to address terrorism threats in nuclear power plants” (Nuclear Risk Management Coordinating Committee, 2005 September).

Let’s take the assessment and management of radiation exposure as an example of how risk assessment and risk management are interrelated.  Usually, scientists and risk assessors estimate the risk of exposure of an individual based on certain situations, either planned, existing or those resulting from accidents.  Planned situations would include putting up a facility that involves the use of nuclear energy (a power plant or a hospital for example). Such facilities may expose both its workers and the public to radiation.  Existing situations include abandoned facilities that have the capacity to leak radioactive wastes, while situations arising from accidents include fire or explosion in a nuclear facility that could expose its workers to radioactive materials and could also affect the public residing near the facility when the radioactive materials are released either in the air or in water (Lazo & Kaufer, 2003).  In all such cases, the risk of exposure is estimated either using a radiation-measuring device or constructing or reconstructing the situation.  It is after the assessment of the risk that decisions regarding the management of such risks can be made.  Management of radiation risks usually refers to keeping the exposure to radioactive materials as low as possible.  The usual factors considered when considering risk management are the cost of exposure reduction measures and the amount of radiation that can be averted when such measures are put into place.

Risk management is not as easy as it sounds however.  Aside from the science of risk assessment, social factors, which also play a significant role is risk management has to be considered (Lazo & Kaufer, 2003).  This makes risk management more difficult because the public’s acceptance of risk often differs from that of experts. Scientists may think that a nuclear meltdown has been contained and poses no immediate risk to the surrounding community but the public may think that an evacuation is necessary.  Panic could ensue and the organization may be blamed for diseases that are not actually related to the meltdown. Sjöberg(1999) admitted to a dilemma in risk management: the public’s perception of the risk as opposed to those of the experts.  In most cases, the public and the scientists are in disagreement on what really constitutes a risk.  There are several reasons for this.  One of these is that the public tend to mistrust experts, agencies and industries, while experts show a high level of trust to such agencies and industries.  Whatever the reason however, there is a great need to find a body that would connect scientists to the public and vice versa. Sjöberg (1999) proposed creating an office of the ombudsman.  The ombudsman will speak for the people and should be given the authority to inspect power plants, order additional safety measures in a facility should he find them lacking, or in extreme cases, he can order the temporary or permanent shutdown of a facility.  It is also suggested that the ombudsman should be selected by the people and not by the government in order to prevent biases. Although such thoughts are experimental (although it has worked quite well in Sweden), and may require taking the risk of a power shift, it is nevertheless an idea worth a try.

The Government’s Role in Radiation Protection and Safety

Although the public may also tend to mistrust the government, it has a significant role to play in protecting the public against radiation exposure.  The government is still regarded as the highest authority when it comes to educating the public regarding nuclear radiation and safety.  Furthermore, it can also enforce laws and regulations that can prompt nuclear facilities to bolster their safety policies.

High radiation doses have been proven to be fatal (Bodansky, 2004).  If a dose between 3-5 Gray (1 Gray is defined to be one adsorbed dose corresponding to one joule/kilogram in the adsorber  – usually a human being) is received over a short period of time, there is a 50% chance of death within the next 60 days.  Doses between 1 and 4 Gray usually results to nausea and a drop in white blood cell count and doses below 1 Gray have not been found to have any effects if the exposure is but for a short time.  However, exposure to radiation even with doses less than 1 Gray, over extended periods of time results to increased risk of cancer.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2006), a branch of the government responsible for educating the public regarding radiation and offering emergency response should a nuclear accident arise, has a very helpful tool to “calculate acute radiation doses from an inhalation intake of radionuclides”. Called the Acute Dose Calculator, it can be easily downloaded from EPA’s website.  Furthermore, EPA has also published several federal guideline reports indicating cancer risk coefficients calculated from exposure to radionuclides.  This is an indication that the government is keen on educating its people although a great number of the population may not be aware of such tools.

Aside from educating the public, the government also enforces laws that require energy companies to adapt a plan that will protect the health and safety of the public should an accident arise in the nuclear facility (Nuclear Energy Institute, 2007 January).  In 1980, the Congress mandated that all nuclear power plants adapt an emergency response plan, which should be tested periodically.  No U.S. nuclear power plant will be granted a license without such safety plan.  In 2001, NRC revised its emergency planning regulations to include the distribution of potassium iodide to nearby communities in case a meltdown or leak occurs.  Potassium iodide, if taken within hours of exposure to radioactive iodine, can protect and prevent the thyroid gland.  Potassium iodide however is a first aid substance specific only to the thyroid gland and not to any other part of the body.  Evacuation is still the best response should an unlikely reactor accident occurs.  The government, via its nuclear task force, also determines a 10-mile radius surrounding the power plant and focuses its emergency response on this area when an accident occurs.  In addition, the task force also determines a 50-mile radius in order to assess and consequently limit, food and water consumption, in case radioactive materials leak into water sources or are released into the air.  The NRC has also issued guidelines to power plant operators to determine the alert level of the accident and the corresponding actions to be taken depending on the severity of the leak or meltdown.

Conclusion

In order for a nuclear facility to come up with an effective safety culture, there should be an interplay of different factors.  The organization itself must perform risk assessment and come up with a sound risk management strategy.  The public must also play its part by educating itself on the risks involved and be willing to work with experts to create a safe and healthy environment.  The government, on the other hand, must continue serving its people and try to find ways to further educate them.

References

Environmental Protection Agency (2006). Technical reports. Retrieved August 27, 2007 at http://www.epa.gov/radiation/federal/techdocs.htm

Health and Safety Executive (2006). Five steps to risk assessment. Retrieved August 26, 2007 at http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/indg163.pdf

Lazo, T. and Kaufer, B. (2005). A global approach to risk management. Facts and opinions NEA news, 21.1, 4-6

Nuclear Energy Institute (2002, March). Safety benefits of risk assessment at U.S. nuclear power plants, Retrieved August 27, 2007 at http://72.14.253.104/search?q=cache:MmnaSC5CwJ4J:www.nuclearalliance.org/index.asp%3Fcatnum%3D3%26catid%3D691+nuclear+reactor+risk+assessment&hl=en&ct=clnk&cd=10&client=safari

Nuclear Risk Management Committee (2005, September 6). Strategic plan. Retrieved August 25, 2007 at http://www.ans.org/standards/sb/docs/nrmcc.pdf

O’Hara, P. (2000, Jauary 10). Nuclear safety culture: Competitiveness through safety. Retrieved August 25, 2007 at http://nuclearsafetyculture.freeyellow.com/Nuclear.htm

Ostrom, L., Wilhemlsen, C. and Kaplan, B. (1993). Assessing safety culture. Nuclear safety, 34, 163-164

Sjöberg, L. (1999). Risk perception by the public and by experts; Dilemma on Risk Management. Human ecology review, 6, 2, 1-2

U.S. Census Bureau (2007). International Data Base: World Population. Retrieved August 26, 2007 at http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/idb/worldpopinfo.html

U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (2007). Fact Sheet on Probabilistic Risk Assessment. Retrieved August 25, 2007 at . http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/probabilistic-risk-asses.html

Wert, J(2003). Organizational and nuclear safety culture: Assessment and improvement. Retrieved August 26, 2007 at http://nuclearsafetyculture.freeyellow.com/Organizational%20and%20Nuclear%20%20Safety%20Cultur3.htm

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