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International Experts Debate Current State of Nuclear Safety and Security

Mar. 09, 2021

Conference Explores Lessons Learned Since Fukushima and Chernobyl Accidents

Ten years after the Fukushima Daiichi accident and 35 years after the tragedy at Chernobyl, the lessons learned from the two most severe nuclear disasters in history remain contested. New challenges continue to emerge even as significant progress has been made in many areas to reduce the chances of another major nuclear incident. The role of nuclear energy itself remains a point of heated debate as the climate crisis worsens and alternatives to fossil fuels grow in use.

From March 3-5, the Project on Managing the Atom (MTA) brought together three dozen experts of varying viewpoints from government, academia, and the nuclear sector for a conference exploring the lingering effects of Fukushima and Chernobyl and the evolution of the nuclear safety, security, and governance regimes in their aftermath.

The conference was opened by MTA Executive Director Francesca Giovannini and Matthew Bunn, Harvard Kennedy School’s James R. Schlesinger Professor of the Practice of Energy, National Security, and Foreign Policy. Participants included current and former officials from nuclear regulatory and safety commissions in the U.S., Japan, South Korea, Canada, Africa, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as experts, former officials, and nuclear industry executives from countries including Ukraine, China, and the United Kingdom.

In a JFK Jr. Forum keynote discussion during the conference, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi spoke with The New York TimesDavid Sanger about the need for international cooperation on nuclear safety and security.

As the conference concluded, one of the major takeaways was acknowledgment that the current approach to nuclear accidents has transitioned from prevention to mitigation. The participants also agreed that if preparations for the next accident are based solely on what happened at Fukushima, we will be underprepared.    

Major takeaways:

1) Nuclear energy will continue to play a significant role in meeting our society’s energy needs while mitigating climate change. The focus on nuclear energy will come with attending challenges in nuclear safety and security, as well as challenges in nuclear proliferation.

2) Nuclear safety and security are ongoing processes that require constant vigilance and rigor. Systems set up to improve security and safety must be continually reviewed and revised to meet evolving situations. As Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Prof. Sheila Jasanoff said during a Day 1 panel, “The biggest human error is the belief that there will be no human error.”

3) Nuclear safety and security are global issues. HKS Prof. John P. Holdren pointed out in the opening session that a nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere. We must recognize and account for national differences while acknowledging our international obligations on nuclear safety and security. The disaster at Chernobyl happened before the world was truly globalized in the way it is today, IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said during his JFK Jr. Forum discussion. Chernobyl was a wake-up call about international cooperation on nuclear safety, and Fukushima underscored the need for transparency.

Following this conference, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published a series of commentaries on the future of nuclear safety and the governance of nuclear technologies. The series was produced as a collaboration between the Project on Managing the Atom and the Bulletin.

Read the commentaries here »

4) Much like the COVID-19 pandemic, Chernobyl and Fukushima are reminders of the threat posed by low-probability, high-consequence events. At the same time, we must not plan for the same accident to happen again. Unpredictable gaps in safety and security will inevitably emerge. We must creatively utilize new technologies to improve our standards and performance.

5) The total impact of a disaster like Chernobyl or Fukushima is impossible to measure. The death count, no matter how large, does not tell the full story. These disasters disrupted hundreds of thousands of lives, caused enormous economic and ecological damage, and degraded public trust not only in nuclear energy but in government institutions and technologies.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:International Experts Debate Current State of Nuclear Safety and Security.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 9, 2021.