March Madness

by Sue Prent

"Beware the ides of March..."

Even thus forewarned, Shakespeare’s warrior emperor, Julius Caesar, dies by the sword as he lived by it. The lesson lost on him, in a later Shakespeare play, Caesar's protégé Marc Antony is delivered by his own political vanity to a similar untimely demise.

March has been a most unlucky month for the nuclear energy industry and its regulators, just as it was for the hapless Antony. The nuclear power industry has proven to be similarly resistant to learning its own lessons from five nuclear meltdowns that have occurred in 35 years, with four of those meltdowns occurring in the month of March.

If the focus following the March 1979 meltdown at Three Mile Island (TMI) had been on public safety rather than 'damage control', it could be argued that the March 2011 triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi might never have been allowed to happen.

Neither of these catastrophes could truly be termed an 'accident'. Both resulted from of a confluence of neglected design flaws, avoidable failures and decisions made to protect the bottom line.

At TMI, rather than ordering evacuation of their near neighbors as a precaution, utility management rationalized away early morning indications that something had gone terribly wrong and continued to do so as the situation steadily worsened throughout the remainder of the day.

They waited 48-hours, by which time those in the path of the radiation plume had already received the highest doses, before evacuating women and children.

Apparently, it was considered more important to avoid alarming the public than it was to offer them the simple protection that timely evacuation would have provided.

What followed is a well-documented conspiracy by the powers-that-be to obscure data on actual radiation releases, discredit honest assessments, and suppress injury claims.

Within the nuclear enclave, the only lessons learned from TMI are on how better to cook the books.

Further enabled by a captive regulatory system, the industry gave radiation releases a benign makeover for public consumption. At the same time, reactor owner/operators enjoyed the added benefit of being able to legally "uprate" their systems (increase power output without upgrading the plants) for greater profit, based on manipulated reports regarding radiation releases from TMI.

It was a win-win for all the stakeholders, except for the people of Three Mile Island and for taxpayers who continue to indemnify the industry against the exceptional risks involved when nuclear generation goes awry.

We must not forget another March landmark of nuclear industry failure, the 40th anniversary of the devastating fire at Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Alabama. As Beyond Nuclear points out, even though that terrible fire shut-down Browns Ferry for over twenty years, when it was once again brought on line in May 2007, none of the hard-won fire prevention measures that had resulted for the industry from lessons learned at Browns Ferry were actually implemented there.

So here we are commemorating 36 years since the TMI meltdown on March 28, having just passed observation of the March 11 tragedy at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear site, an even more horrific calamity, where public safety once more lost out in the conspiracy to protect government and industry interests.

In Japan as at TMI, the very authorities who have been entrusted with the public’s safe-keeping are suppressing information and manipulating data in order to serve the corporate and political interests of their handlers.

Just as happened in the aftermath of TMI, efforts to collect accurate data on radiation exposures from the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe have been deliberately subverted, and there is a concerted effort to change the subject.

TMI was once the measure against which any nuclear disaster might be compared for magnitude. Then came Chernobyl to claim the yardstick; followed by Fukushima Daiichi, which still boasts the title of “worst ever.”

If the denial culture that shields the nuclear industry refuses to change, one can’t help but wonder how long it will be until the next one.