Planning for the Unexpected: Learning from the Nuclear Industry

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The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant - courtesy of

BY MICHAEL R. FOX, PHD – Three decades ago, in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident, a leading utility executive warned the nuclear industry that another major accident would be ruinous, destroying its credibility with the public.  Bill Lee, president and chief executive officer of Duke Power Company, in North Carolina, warned that the nuclear industry was only as strong as its weakest link and that it needed to make every nuclear plant operator accountable.   His admonition could apply to the oil industry today.


At the time of the TMI accident, the nuclear industry faced a situation that was similar in many respects to that facing the oil industry now.   But instead of blaming the accident on the TMI plant owner, utilities recognized that the nuclear industry as a whole needed to change.

Spearheaded by Bill Lee, the industry created an organization that would enable plant operators to exchange information about plant safety, particularly lessons learned so that any mistakes would not be repeated.

Known as the Institute of Nuclear Plant Operations (INPO), the organization is widely credited with having created a culture of safety in the nuclear industry that is second to none. INPO dispatches teams of nuclear engineers and other professionals to conduct regular safety inspections at every nuclear plant in this country.  INPO sets performance goals for the industry as a whole, and it trains and accredits plant operators.

INPO, of course, is not to be confused with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which provides federal oversight of nuclear plants. But INPO’s attention to ensuring nuclear safety has complemented that of the NRC.  The record speaks for itself: the U.S. nuclear industry has not had a serious nuclear accident since TMI.  In tribute to Bill Lee, Duke Power is planning to build the William Straight Lee Nuclear Plant in South Carolina. Emergency Response Centers abound in the nuclear industry across the nation. Elaborate communication, coordination, and response systems are used and in place. People are trained endlessly, with utilities holding regularly emergency response practices.

Skeptics like to point out that there hasn’t been a new nuclear plant built in the United States in more than 30 years.  What they ignore is the impressive improvement in the performance of existing nuclear plants.  In 1980, nuclear plants had an average capacity factor of 56.3% and produced 251 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.  By contrast, last year the capacity factor exceeded 90% and the amount of electricity generated had climbed to 798.7 billion kilowatt-hours. It might be helpful to point out that there are currently 42 nuclear reactors being built in the world, none currently in the U.S.

So largely as a result of improved plant safety and reliability, the increase in nuclear-generated electricity has been equivalent to the addition of 25 large nuclear plants to the U.S. electric grid – an achievement made possible without companies having to spend money on building any new power plants.  The need for electricity, however, is so great that utilities are gearing up to build another 30 nuclear plants.

By contrast, the oil industry’s record has been marred by its indifference to safety.  In a report issued several years ago, in the aftermath of a disastrous fire and explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery that killed 15 oil workers and injured many others, a panel of experts headed by former Secretary of State James Baker rebuked the oil industry as a whole for not giving adequate attention to workplace safety at U.S. oil refineries.  The panel urged the oil industry to establish a “safety culture” in its operations.

Yet the oil industry has done almost nothing to confront its safety problems, as was evident from the Gulf drilling disaster.  It should heed the advice of William Reilly, cochairman of the White House commission that’s investigating the disaster.  Reilly, former head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George H.W. Bush, has urged the industry to establish an organization comparable to INPO.  But the oil companies have yet to act on his recommendation, evidently unmoved by the horrific mess in the Gulf, the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Michael R. Fox, Ph.D., is a nuclear scientist and a science and energy resource for Hawaii Reporter and a science analyst for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, is retired and now lives in Eastern Washington. He has nearly 40 years experience in the energy field. He has also taught chemistry and energy at the University level. His interest in the communications of science has led to several communications awards, hundreds of speeches, and many appearances on television and talk shows. He can be reached via email at