Editor's Note: This is part of the IEEE Spectrum special report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power.
Sometimes it takes a disaster before we humans really figure out how to design something. In fact, sometimes it takes more than one.
Millions of people had to die on highways, for example, before governments forced auto companies to get serious about safety in the 1980s. But with nuclear power, learning by disaster has never really been an option. Or so it seemed, until officials found themselves grappling with the world's third major accident at a nuclear plant. On 11 March, a tidal wave set in motion a sequence of events that led to meltdowns in three reactors at the Fukushima Dai-ichi power station, 250 kilometers northeast of Tokyo.
Unlike the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, the chain of failures that led to disaster at Fukushima was caused by an extreme event. It was precisely the kind of occurrence that nuclear-plant designers strive to anticipate in their blueprints and emergency-response officials try to envision in their plans. The struggle to control the stricken plant, with its remarkable heroism, improvisational genius, and heartbreaking failure, will keep the experts busy for years to come. And in the end the calamity will undoubtedly improve nuclear plant design.
True, the antinuclear forces will find plenty in the Fukushima saga to bolster their arguments. The interlocked and cascading chain of mishaps seems to be a textbook validation of the "normal accidents" hypothesis developed by Charles Perrow after Three Mile Island. Perrow, a Yale University sociologist, identified the nuclear power plant as the canonical tightly coupled system, in which the occasional catastrophic failure is inevitable.
On the other hand, close study of the disaster's first 24 hours, before the cascade of failures carried reactor 1 beyond any hope of salvation, reveals clear inflection points where minor differences would have prevented events from spiraling out of control. Some of these are astonishingly simple: If the emergency generators had been installed on upper floors rather than in basements, for example, the disaster would have stopped before it began. And if workers had been able to vent gases in reactor 1 sooner, the rest of the plant's destruction might well have been averted.
The world's three major nuclear accidents had very different causes, but they have one important thing in common: In each case, the company or government agency in charge withheld critical information from the public. And in the absence of information, the panicked public began to associate all nuclear power with horror and radiation nightmares. The owner of the Fukushima plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), has only made the situation worse by presenting the Japanese and global public with obfuscations instead of a clear-eyed accounting.
Citing a government investigation, TEPCO has steadfastly refused to make workers available for interviews and is barely answering questions about the accident. By piecing together as best we can the story of what happened during the first 24 hours, when reactor 1 was spiraling toward catastrophe, we hope to facilitate the process of learning-by-disaster.