Accidents happen, futures are made
Delivered at International Atomic Energy Agency’s National Seminar on Stakeholder Involvement, Tokyo, Japan, March 7, 2012
I am honored to participate in such important work and to be with people committed to something as vital as their country’s energy supply.
Thirty years ago, I left my profession as a newspaper reporter to manage media relations at Three Mile Island following the accident there. While at TMI I worked with Japanese scientists and engineers who had come to learn about the cleanup at TMI. I was impressed by their eagerness to learn and the enthusiasm they brought to their jobs.
I thought often of those times as I watched the television coverage of the Fukushima meltdown. My heart ached for the suffering of the Fukushima workers and of the Japanese people.
But as you in Japan had to do, the professionals in the U.S. nuclear industry quickly set aside their emotions as much as possible and focused on responding to the disaster from their vantage point. For the U.S. industry, responding mainly involved understanding the lessons of Fukushima.
Today, I will discuss first the U.S. response to the Fukushima accident and then some of the lessons from the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.
One of the most common sayings in English is, “Accidents happen.” It is a way of explaining any misfortune, whether it is a child falling and bruising his knee or a loss-of-coolant event at a nuclear plant.
Traumatic events are inevitable in the human experience. The nuclear accidents in the U.S. and Japan, inevitable or not, did in fact happen.
But it is up to us to learn from the past and transform the lessons–however harsh they may be–to opportunities for our industries and our fellow men. Accidents happen, but people create futures.
With that in mind, let’s review the U.S. industry’s response to Fukushima.
The U.S. industry responded immediately to the Fukushima accident, setting in motion well-established mechanisms for identifying and sharing lessons learned. In a matter of days, disciplined reviews of safety equipment and procedures were under way at all U.S. nuclear energy facilities.
The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) required a series of plant assessments that included protection from seismic and flooding hazards, protection from an extended loss of power to vital safety systems, and protection of used fuel storage pools.
The independent U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) also initiated special inspections to verify that nuclear energy facilities are well protected in the event of a natural disaster. The NRC ultimately confirmed that there are no safety concerns requiring immediate action and made recommendations for longer term enhancements.
The industry is taking a strategic and comprehensive approach to addressing Fukushima under the guidance of senior industry leaders.
The industry’s strategic plan covers areas where a coordinated response to Fukushima is required to maintain and improve safety at America’s 104 reactors. Included in these activities is strategic communications outreach. This is being done largely through communications personnel at the plants with their local citizens and media and through the Nuclear Energy Institute on a national level.
The focus has been on how the U.S. industry is implementing the lessons of Fukushima to ensure the safety of its plants.
The industry has developed a methodology that it believes will provide the maximum safety in the minimum amount of time. This approach is called FLEX for short.
The basic objective of FLEX is to enhance a plant’s ability to handle whatever nature has in store for it.
Our facilities are well protected against extreme natural phenomena–such as tornadoes and earthquakes–within the design basis. Most of the risk comes from improbable events that are beyond the design parameters.
In summary, we are establishing an ability to cope indefinitely with threats to the integrity of the fuel core.
FLEX expands our existing layered approach to safety by adding portable equipment at pre-staged onsite and offsite locations.
After the terrorists’ attacks of 11 September, 2001, U.S. nuclear operators envisioned a scenario where the facility suffered a large fire or explosion that disabled vital equipment. Since we couldn’t predict exactly which equipment would be affected, we focused on the equipment needed to keep the reactor cool if the usual safety systems were not available.
At each site, we purchased portable equipment that could be stored away from the reactor and used to respond regardless of the location of an explosion, aircraft impact or massive fire.
The scenario of an unexpected natural disaster is really no different, and the work we did after 9/11 gave us a 10-year head start.
The lesson learned from Japan is that we need to be prepared to handle catastrophic events simultaneously at multiple reactors.
We are planning to establish regional centers from which equipment and supplies could be airlifted to a site very quickly.
As far as new regulatory requirements arising from Fukushima, the industry agrees with the NRC staff on key technical areas.
An important consideration is balancing new requirements with other important work to achieve the greatest overall benefit of safety.
In addition to addressing lessons from Fukushima, there is a significant amount of regulatory work under way, Early this year, the NRC issued the amended design certification rule for the Westinghouse AP1000® reactor, cleraring the way for issuance of construction and operating licenses for four AP1000 reactors to be built at two sites in the southeastern United States.
Tennessee Valley Authority has undertaken a $2.5 billion project to complete Watts Bar 2 and plans to have the reactor operating by 2013.
License renewal continues to move forward. More than 70 of America’s 104 reactors now have renewed their operating licenses. The NRC issued 10 of these renewals in 2011–nine of them after the accident in Japan.
Renewal applications for another 15 reactors are currently under review.
Public favorability ratings of nuclear energy understandably declined after the accident in Japan, but we already are seeing some recovery. Favorability decreased from 71 percent in February 2011 before Fukushima to 42 percent in April following the March 11 accident. However, favorability had risen to 62 percent by the fall.
A September nationwide survey found the following:
* 82 percent agree that the United States should learn from Fukushima.
* 61 percent would find it acceptable to build a new reactor at the nuclear energy facility closest to their home.
The public’s perceptions of nuclear safety are as high today as before the Fukushima accident.
67 percent rated nuclear safety HIGH in February 2011–and 67 percent also rated it HIGH in September.
A survey of residents who live within 10 miles of nuclear energy facilities–conducted since the accident in Japan–showed eight in 10 favor the use of nuclear energy.
Neighbors of nuclear energy facilities continue to express high favorability. In June 2011 a survey of residents within 10 miles of a plant reported the following:
* 83 percent said they believe the nuclear power plant in their area is safe.
* 87 percent said nuclear energy is important (62 percent) or somewhat important (25 percent) in meeting America’s electricity needs.
Why does there continue to be support for nuclear power in the U.S. after the frightening images of Fukushima? The person who conducted the research, Ann Bisconti, says the following:
“Support is grounded in excellent safety performance. Seventy-nine percent agree that the plant (in their community) is prepared to withstand the most extreme natural events that could occur in the region.”
Bisconti goes on to say, “Plant neighbors are comfortable also because they know people who work at the plant. In fact, 61 percent indicated that people they know who work at the plant have been a useful source of information about that plant.
“Many plants are located in areas where local residents enjoy fishing or boating. The residents see firsthand the plant’s activities for environmental preservation; 84 percent of plant neighbors agree that the company that operates the plant is doing a good job of protecting the environment.”
Since the accident at Fukushima, the industry has worked hard with the regulatory and policy communities, the media, and the public to maintain strong confidence in nuclear energy.
We’ve been encouraged by the response to Fukushima.
We’ve seen a disciplined response from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and, the industry is in substantial agreement on what needs to be done. The political response has been measured and responsible. Public opinion dipped but is recovering. And the editorial pages have been largely supportive of the long-term need for nuclear energy.
Now, I will speak to key communications lessons from TMI.
On 28 March 1979, a series of equipment malfunctions and operator errors led to a partial meltdown of the nuclear fuel core at Three Mile Island Unit 2. Radiation releases from the plant, though relatively small, prompted a partial evacuation of the area around the plant.
Although the physical damage at TMI was much less than at Fukushima, poor communications about the accident and the resulting confusion led to widespread fear in the public and a loss of trust in the operator of the plant.
The mistrust complicated the cleanup work at TMI-2, which took 10 years to complete. And it delayed by more than six years the resumption of operations at the neighboring plant, TMI-1, which had been shut down for refueling at the time of the TMI-2 accident and was unaffected by the accident.
This lack of trust cost the company billions of dollars in direct expenses and additional costs in replacement power.
One of several investigations following the accident was done by a commission appointed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Among the commission’s findings were the following:
* Neither the company nor the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission had plans for providing information to the public and the media in the event of an accident.
* During the accident, “official sources of information were often confused or ignorant of the facts.”
* The company was slow to confirm pessimistic news about the accident, contributing to the company’s loss of credibility.
Prior to the accident at TMI, the plant operator had little contact with members of the public, with elected officials or with the media. That all changed in 1979.
The tsunami at Three Mile Island came in the form of an ongoing demand for information that inundated a corporate management that was ill-prepared to handle it and unaccustomed to being challenged about its statements.
At a corporate level, the operator of Three Mile Island set up a nuclear organization dedicated to running nuclear plants. Previously management’s attention was divided among the responsibilities of nuclear power plants, fossil-fuel plants and a large electricity distribution system.
In terms of developing a long-term communications response, the objective was to achieve high standards of timeliness, accuracy and clarity.
To achieve these, we took a number of actions, including the following:
* Established a comprehensive communications plan and regularly practiced it
* Gave plant management complete control of communications
* Gave communications personnel direct access to the control room during emergencies
I was one of 40 people hired to conduct plant tours, meet with public officials, issue news releases, hold interviews and news conferences and be available 24 hours a day.
Plant management was given complete authority to issue public statements and respond to inquiries as necessary. This was essential to establishing a high level of credibility and a reputation for being quick to provide information and being open about activities at the plant.
While we regularly shared information with regulators and other public officials, we conducted our communications programs independently of them.
If there is any single thing that we found to be most important to establishing and maintaining trust, it was communicating quickly and accurately during emergencies–even small ones. This requires the right personnel and rigorous training.
Shortly after the TMI accident, we established a Community Awareness Panel, which exists to this day. The panel is made up of citizens who live near the plant. It meets several times a year, exchanging information, ideas and opinions with plant personnel. The plant uses the panel to help inform the public of activities at the plant and to enhance management’s understanding of public concerns.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission formed a Citizens Advisory Panel on the Decontamination of TMI-2. For about 10 years, the panel held public meetings to review the company’s plans for the cleanup of the damaged reactor. Other agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy participated in these meeting to provide their perspective.
The plant communicates regularly with employees and at various times has published newsletters directed at specific opinion leaders such as medical professionals.
The immediate communications response to the TMI accident failed. However, the longer term communications program was instrumental to TMI-2′s successful cleanup and TMI-1′s return to service and world class operations.
In closing, I want to look to the future:
The U.S. electricity infrastructure is aging. Over the next 20 years, the industry must invest up to $2 trillion in new power plants, transmission and distribution infrastructure, and environmental controls. The amount that must be invested exceeds the asset value of the entire electric transmission system today.
Growth in nuclear energy in the United States will be modest in the near term, with four to eight new reactors operating by 2020. Yet many believe that there is no long-term alternative to a robust nuclear power industry.
Indeed, author Robert Bryce, in his book “Power Hungry”, identifies natural gas as merely a transition fuel to the inevitable development of a worldwide nuclear economy.
In the meantime, it is up to people like us to see that the nuclear technology is understood by the public–and as safe as possible–no matter what unexpected threats strike.
I believe what we are learning together here will advance that cause.
And it is up to you, my new Japanese friends, to create a future for your industry and your fellow men.
Address by GORDON TOMB, energy affairs communications professional