Atom safety: lesson not learned

Disturbing reports from Europe show that, on that side of the Atlantic as in the United States, the lesson of Three Mile Island needs to be learned. Management of nuclear facilities must give safety the rigorous attention it deserves.

Throughout the past decade, "minor" accidents at Britain's Windscale nuclear fuels plant have caused public concern. Now the Health and Safety Executive reports damaging findings.

It says that the operating authority, British Nuclear Fuels (BNF), let several plants at the site run down so that, by the early 1970s, their safety could not be guaranteed. Corrective efforts only complicated the problem by straining available resources. It faults BNF for inadequate attention in filling senior posts. In particular, the Northeast Area General Manager has been responsible for safety at Windscale and a number of other sites. This, the report says, spreads his responsibility much too thinly.

The report notes that most incidents reflect mistakes in routine work. It urges managers to tighten up safety supervision and ensure regular review and updating of safety procedures. Also, Britain's Nuclear Installations Inspectorate has said it would like an independent safety audit system for the site.

Commenting on the report, the British Journal Nature notes that Windscale's troubles arose partly "because of the way in which it has been created by the addition of new plants to an already overcrowded site, and because of its relative antiquity." It adds, however, "other nuclear sites are likely to encounter similar problems which will be less readily excused."

Meanwhile, in France, there is continuing concern over the fire that broke out Jan. 6 in an underground repository of spent fuel rods, burning their graphite cladding. Cogema, the subsidiary of the French Atomic Energy Commission that operates the La Hague fuel reprocessing plant near Cherbourg where the incident occurred, has denied any public danger. Nevertheless, it now appears, according to a report in Nature, that alarm bells were at first ignored. Furthermore, the unions concerned claim that on-site radiation was more serious than officially admitted and that there was some serious complaint is of excessive official secrecy.

Last December a European Commission study group found that nuclear safety measures should be tightened up throughout the European Community. Conditions similar to those that underlay the Three Mile Island incident had occurred virtually unnoticed at several sites. Similar concerns about laxity regarding safety have arisen in some Eastern European countries as well.

The main lesson of Three Mile Island is that managements of nuclear facilities have failed to give safety the detailed priority attention it requires in spite of long lip service to that principle. This lesson, it appears, has yet to be fully be en appreciated.

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