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How safe are nuclear power plants?

A new history reveals that federal
regulators consistently assured Americans that the risks of a massive
accident were “vanishingly small”—even when they knew they had
insufficient evidence to prove it.

Thomas Wellock, formerly a professor at
Central Washington University, became the historian of the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission (N.R.C.) more than a decade ago. He brought chops to
the job—training in engineering, experience testing nuclear reactors, and
a Ph.D. in history from Berkeley—and, in March of 2021, published the
sixth in a series of authorized volumes about how the agency, and its
predecessor, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (A.E.C.), has regulated
civilian nuclear power.

“Safe Enough? A History of Nuclear Power and
Accident Risk” is a refreshingly candid account of how the government,
from the nineteen-forties onward, approached the bottom-line question posed
in the book’s title. Technically astute insiders at the A.E.C. took it
for granted that “catastrophic accidents” were possible; the key
question was: What were the chances? The long and the short of it,
Wellock’s book suggests, is that, while many officials believed the
chances were very low, nobody really knew for sure how low they were or
could prove it scientifically.

Even as plants were being built, the numbers
used by officials to describe the likelihood of an accident were based on
“expert guesswork or calculations that often produced absurd results,”
he writes. The “guesswork” nature of such analysis was never candidly
acknowledged to either the public or the agency’s licensing boards, which
had the legal responsibility of determining that individual plants all
around the country were safe enough to be approved for operation.

 New Yorker 13th Aug 2022

August 14, 2022 - Posted by | safety, USA

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