That does not mean we can be complacent about future risks. Both government regulators and the industry should be prepared to improve plant designs and operating protocols still further, with the aim of strengthening long-term safety and reliability. Industry participants need to step back and approach self-assessment and public scrutiny with an open mind, as a welcome step toward an even safer operating environment and thus a more secure long-term industry. They may also need to accept that for current designs and projects, despite significant investments and licensing progress, delays for regulatory review and analysis of potential safety concerns are likely. Even if this adds a few months to the certification and licensing process, the industry has plenty to focus on in the meantime to ensure preparedness for planned construction and to mitigate future delays.
Transparency will be a major factor in gaining acceptance. Safety improvements and focused design enhancements will require open collaboration and meaningful cooperation among all stakeholders, including the public. Risk mitigation of low-probability, high-impact natural disasters needs to be openly assessed and improvements incorporated into site protection and reactor design evolution, where practical. Policymakers and regulators will need to emphasize solutions that genuinely advance the state of industry performance and reduce risk, rather than simply layer on new requirements with dubious safety and public benefits.
Regulators and industry leaders also need to make greater distinctions among different facilities, because risks vary from one location and one plant design to another. Not all nuclear reactors are alike; the lessons gleaned from Fukushima Daiichi will not apply to all plants in Japan, let alone across the globe. Safety reviews should factor in reactor age, geographic context, and the type of technology — several different types of water-cooled and gas-cooled reactors are in use now — to avoid painting all plants with the same brush. The first facilities to review should be those that are most susceptible to low-probability, high-impact events such as hurricanes and earthquakes, and those with the least passive safety in their design. (Passive safety features are those that make use of designed-in operational and equipment controls, rather than relying on human intervention.) At the same time, industry should recognize the global nature of the market and explore ways in which lessons can be shared effectively across geographies. For example, some practices already prevalent in the U.S. (such as having diverse backup power sources and improved spent fuel storage protection) could be more widely applied to the benefit of the industry at large.
Where possible, safety reviews should accelerate a shift to newer technologies. Existing plants have proven to be safe, but the most current “Generation 3” and the proposed “Generation 4” reactor designs have incorporated further significant safety improvements. For example, passive decay cooling, found in the new generation of light water reactor designs, would have broken the chain of cascading failures (of backup power systems and coolant pumps) at Fukushima Daiichi and thereby eliminated some of the factors that precipitated problems there. It will still take several years to bring new plants online, and all existing power sources will be needed in the meantime — but it would be beneficial if the crisis could lead to a measured, well-designed plan to further enhance the world’s nuclear energy footprint. Conversely, if the crisis results in a slowdown in new nuclear plant construction, it could paradoxically result in extending the operating lives of older plants.
For the long term, countries will need to intensify emerging energy technology research and development. Because R&D investment in a single, unproven technology is risky, countries will likely have to invest in a wide range of alternatives, including renewable energy and storage options, as well as coal with carbon sequestration.