What can be done to reduce the probability of another nuclear meltdown?


I’ve been watching ‘Meltdown’ on Netflix, which has led me to wondering whether the industry has really learnt anything from this disaster, particularly considering that there have been another 4 reactor meltdowns since!

In case you haven’t had an opportunity to watch ‘Meltdown’, it documents the 1979 Three Mile Island (TMI) Nuclear disaster in Pennsylvania. One of the issues that came to light after the event was  evidence of faulty safety values on other nuclear plants (as disclosed in a report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)  prior to the disaster), but no action was taken. (Lamentably, it was a  stuck safety valve that started the series of bad decisions leading to the meltdown). A similar situation arose in a totally different industry when engineers reported an O-ring problem just before the Challenger shuttle disaster. They, too, were ignored. It took 14 years before defueling and decontamination of Three Mile Island Reactor Number 2 (TMI-2) was completed in 1993, and the reactor was permanently shut down.

Then, in April 1986, just 7 years after TMI, the worst ever nuclear disaster took place when Chernobyl Nuclear power plant in Ukraine had a reactor meltdown. A combination of operator negligence and critical design flaws were found to be the cause. It was so damaging that a New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure, referred to as the sarcophagus,was built to contain the remains of the number 4 reactor unit. Basically a massive steel frame, it was completed in 2019, 33 years after the catastrophe, at a cost of 1.5 billion euros. The cleanup of the area surrounding Chernobyl is expected to continue for decades, while parts may remain uninhabitable for thousands of years. 

Reactor meltdowns came back to haunt us when, in 2011, three reactors of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant had meltdowns after a tsunami flooded the basement of the power plant’s turbine buildings and disabled the emergency diesel generators which were meant to keep coolant circulating around the reactors. Previous recommendations for protection against seawater flooding had been ignored by top management. Over 150,000 citizens were forced to evacuate and, a decade later, an exclusion zone remains in place and many residents have still not returned. Tens of thousands of workers will be needed over the next 30 to 40 years to safely remove nuclear waste, fuel rods and more than one million tons of radioactive water still kept at the site.

Thoughts on what can be done to avert nuclear disasters

It’s clear from these examples that failures in the nuclear industry are devastating, not only financially, but also to the communities and particularly to the environment affected. Many other industries suffer failings which could be ruinous even for a large corporation, but very few have the same fallout and calamitous results as when something goes horribly wrong with a nuclear reactor. These results have effects which many future generations will have to deal with. So it should stand to reason then that every possible measure must be employed to prevent such incidents.

I’ve jotted down some of my ideas, many borrowed from the oil and gas industry, on how to go about assuring that we never have another meltdown.

Recognizing Barriers of Time and Distance

Accidents never respect either age or geographical barriers. An incident from elsewhere in the world could potentially happen on any plant, and disasters that arose before could happen again. To this end, reports of major incidents from around the world need to be regularly reviewed, collated, recorded and integrated with local awareness programs and the development of pre-emptive regulations and standards.   

The ”Report of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island” was reviewed and dissected by nuclear operators around the world soon after the accident, but have people in the industry reviewed and checked the relevance of the report recently?

Joint Ventures could play their part to reduce risks by regularly reviewing and analyzing internal incidents that have occurred elsewhere and then distributing the outcomes to their affiliates as lessons learned.

Addressing Loss of Experience

After TMI, the US nuclear industry established the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) as well as its affiliate, the National Academy for Nuclear Training.

The loss of experienced personnel and the resultant loss of corporate memory is an ongoing challenge in the nuclear industry that urgently needs to be addressed. Fortunately, industry cooperative learning programs, such as skills transfer programs, are being developed with representatives from as far afield as the Czech Republic, Indonesia and Lithuania. In addition, knowledge transfer and leadership development, including mentorship programmes, soft skill seminars, multicultural integration, and sharing of best practices is widely encouraged.

Rolls-Royce has provided the power for the entire fleet of the Royal Navy’s nuclear submarines for the past 60 years and in May 2022 Rolls-Royce announced that it is to launch a nuclear skills academy to train 200 nuclear engineers a year.

Systems and processes need to be documented, applied, audited and updated regularly and experienced personnel play a key role in this practice.

Young companies often lack skills and experience and partnering with more experienced companies for “fast-track” technology transfer is highly recommended. 

Nuclear operators, such as Eskom in South Africa with one nuclear power station, have long term technical agreements with experienced operators at many nuclear stations, such as EDF (Electricité de France).

Using Simulators

The use of simulator training and regular refresher training is particularly essential. Simulator training builds confidence, possibly overconfidence, when there are no new real “near misses” or even major disasters. Such exercises must include all possible eventualities so that responses become second nature and such training must be repeated on a regular basis to sharpen these responses.

Recognizing and Reducing Cultural Barriers

In certain cultures there is a fear of being blamed and also difficulty in challenging anyone in a more senior position. So it’s vital to instil a learning culture and also to implement a behavior-based safety program where all staff are empowered to intervene when unsafe acts are committed. This could be a crucial factor in reducing human error which may result in major incidents.

Changing Focus from Personnel Safety to Process Safety 

Historically, personnel safety was based on lagging performance indicators, whereas now, more importance is placed on Process safety, using leading performance indicators. Leading indicators identify failings in processes essential to maintain critical aspects of risk control systems.

After the Texas refinery explosion in 2005, the oil industry realized that lagging indicators had limitations. New industry standards were subsequently established emphasizing the need for leading indicators.

Sharing Positives and Negatives

Identifying failures (and successes) in other industries and re-framing them to fit the nuclear industry could be a useful tool in combating potential incidents. Negatives get reported by the media, but positives don’t and, as a result, positive actions are more difficult to identify and analyze. So a basic question has to be asked: “Why has the competition ‘company x’ not had any major incidents?” which leads to the next question “What are they doing to prevent major incidents?”  

Recognizing Limitations of National and International Standards

Working to standards may not be enough. Standards do not necessarily cover all activities in an industry since they generally only evolve after a series of bad experiences or a risk assessment. Therefore operators need to be vigilant and continually challenge issues of safety. Risk issues often evolve into company standards which then in turn become industry, national and eventually international standards.

A pandemic such as the current Covid-19 outbreak could challenge the continuity of safe operation of nuclear power plants and, therefore, operators are implementing special measures that integrate safety into their business activities, and (required) priorities under pandemic circumstances.’

Extracting Value From Your Insurance Assessor

Insurance Assessors have a wealth of information in large databases that could be exploited and companies would be wise to use this potential knowledge transfer opportunity to their advantage.

The Future

There has been a resurgence of late to build large nuclear power stations, especially in France, India, the UK and China. China is planning 150 reactor units in the next 15 years! Governments claim that these are required for base load (the minimum level of demand on an electrical grid over a span of time) as alternatives such as wind and solar are unpredictable.  However, the cost of electricity from large nuclear power plants remains very high compared to sustainable alternatives such as wind and solar.

Cost of ownership, (a technical term for the total investment and operating cost over the lifetime of the investment), is ultimately the deciding factor for comparative investments. The nuclear industry has traditionally been supported by governments in one way or another since initial investment costs are high, although operating costs are reasonable (aside from major incidents such as meltdowns!). The economic viability of nuclear power relative to renewables have become more acute. In March 2017 we saw Westinghouse go bankrupt as a result of $9 billion in losses from its nuclear reactor construction projects. Also in 2017, Areva restructured and sold the majority of its reactor business to the French, state-owned entity, EDF.

‘In the UK, Hinkley Point C nuclear plant will suffer another one-year delay and come in up to £8bn over budget. French energy company EDF said costs are estimated between £25bn and £26bn, up from a cost of £18bn. EDF has also seen rising costs at its Flamanville 3 plant in France, which is more than a decade behind its original schedule.

An interesting development is that of small modular reactors (SMRs), up to about 400 MW, which should start appearing on the market before 2030. Their advantage is that modules can be produced in factories and easily transported by road, which would considerably reduce construction time and costs compared to large nuclear power plants. 

At present , there are 439 reactors in the world and meltdowns are just one of the concerns. Political instability and war are yet another. Russia’s war in Ukraine is an example where Ukraine has 15 units generating half of the electricity requirements of the country. Safe operation in a war situation is very risky and war damage to these reactors could be disastrous for the whole of Europe. (The radioactive plume from the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown reached as far afield as Scandinavia and the UK.)  It is somewhat reassuring to know that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s “Atoms for Peace” organization, is monitoring the situation closely.

Is the current generation of engineers and operators learning from the past? A total of 37 countries now have nuclear power stations and it stands to reason that consummate training of engineers and operators in all these countries is absolutely vital. New reactors that are now being built will have additional challenges and, worryingly, cheaper construction may mean fewer safety precautions. Added to this, new and unproven designs may present risks that we are not currently aware of.  


It’s a sad but inexorable fact that as long as companies prioritize profit over safety, accidents will continue. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is doing its part and governments need to do their part to ensure the utmost safety in the industry and also need to provide assurances to the  general public that they are being vigilant. All in all, I am confident that the IAEA and other regulatory authorities are doing the utmost to prevent another meltdown.

 It is naive to believe that we can do away with nuclear energy altogether in the future. It’s a zero- emission, clean energy source. It’s also reliable with a high energy density. Hopefully lessons have been learned and the new generation of modular nuclear reactors (MNRs) will be cost effective and incident free. There is little doubt that nuclear electric power will remain an established component of our future sustainable energy mix.

But for now, I will retreat to my cave to watch the next episode of ’Meltdown’ and continue to rely on wind and solar for my own personal power needs.

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