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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Japanese officials still don't know all the factors that contributed to the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. One thing is clear: The plant was not designed to withstand the 40-foot tsunami that smashed into it last March. And it's also likely that workers at the plant could have reduced the severity of the damage if they'd made different decisions during the crisis.

NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS: Some of the stories from the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant seem heroic and, even at times, quite creative. After the tsunami knocked out the power to the reactors and destroyed the diesel back-up system, workers fanned out into plant parking lot full of wrecked cars.

Dr. LAKE BARRETT (Former Nuclear Engineer): So people were out scavenging batteries out of cars and trucks, bringing them to the control rooms, wiring them with hot wires to the instrumentation, to try to determine what was the water level in the core and to control the pumps that they had.

HARRIS: Lake Barrett, a retired nuclear engineer who led the Three Mile Island clean-up, says those desperate measures were clearly not enough. But why the heroics failed is not quite so clear.

Dr. BARRETT: It's like the anatomy of any complex accident. There are a lot of parts to it. I'm sure there's going to be design features. There's going to be some equipment operability features, and there's probably going to be some personnel, you know, features as well.

HARRIS: Personnel who might have done something different if they had better information, better training or perhaps better guidance.

Some of the institutional issues have already emerged. Japan's own preliminary investigation showed disagreement and confusion over who should be calling the shots. Barrett says this was partly cultural.

Dr. BARRETT: The Japanese decision-making process, of group decision-making and not individual decision-making, might have been a hindrance for dealing with a situation like this. It's hard to know, but the timeframe demands on making decisions like this, that are multi-billion-dollar decisions, would be difficult in the Japanese culture to do, you know, as promptly as maybe it would be done here.

HARRIS: One critical decision was whether to pump seawater into the reactors. That would surely ruin them, but it could also keep them cool and prevent meltdowns. It appears the engineers on site hesitated for some hours before they went ahead and did that.

Per Peterson, chairman of nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley says that was a questionable decision.

Mr. PER PETERSON (Chairman, Nuclear Engineering, UC Berkeley): It's quite likely that if the injection of seawater had been initiated earlier, that the damage of fuel could have been limited greatly or even prevented. So I think that there are possible pathways by which the severity of the accident could have been substantially less.

HARRIS: Of course, it's easier to see that now than it might have been in the heat of a crisis.

Prof. PETERSON: One has to look at the context of this severe natural disaster. Many of the staff that were there that were contractors who had left the site so that they could go to find their families. And so in that context, one can understand why the decision-making process perhaps did not roll out as well as it might have. But also, clearly, better preparation could have made a big difference here.

HARRIS: Preparation means having a plant that's designed to be more robust to begin with. It means having a clear process for making decisions. And last, but not least, it means having a staff that's been trained to deal with disasters. That's one area where Japan may have fallen short.

Marvin Fertel, at the Nuclear Energy Institute, told a recent panel at the National Academy of Sciences that U.S. operators get better training than their counterparts in Japan.

Mr. MARVIN FERTEL (Nuclear Energy Institute): What we like for the operators and the security guards when we're operating the plants is just boredom. Everything is just good, right? So the time we really want them to train and deal with bad events is when they're in a simulator.

HARRIS: These simulators mimic each specific nuclear power plant closely, and allow reactor operators to practice dealing with extreme emergencies, as they would experience them in their own control rooms.

Mr. FERTEL: In Japan, we understand they do not, one, have plant-specific simulators. They have generic simulators for the types of plants they have. And two, they don't have one for every plant.

HARRIS: That means less-realistic training and less time to practice, Fertel said. Whether better training would have made a difference should emerge from the ongoing investigation in Japan.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we'll hear how nuclear plant operators in the U.S. are trained to deal with disaster.

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