Lessons from Fukushima: Interview with Dr. Peter Lyons

“A thrust of the nuclear industry needs to be that there will never be another Fukushima and that the lessons have been adequately learned and assimilated in each country that chooses to use nuclear power.”

In this third installment of the “Lessons from Fukushima” video series, former Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Dr. Peter Lyons draws parallels between the Japanese experience with the Fukushima disaster and the American experience with the Three Mile Island accident.

Peter LyonsAs in the previous videos, Dr. Lyons recollects the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident. He recounts the immediate mobilization of the U.S. Department of Energy Emergency Operation Center, as well as the “tremendous heroism from the operators at the nuclear power plants.” Given the “tremendous dearth of information” readily available to U.S. assets attempting to render aid, however, Dr. Lyons also presents his two biggest lessons learned from Fukushima:

  1. Countries must have an independent regulator. The U.S. has had the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) since 1974, but before Fukushima Japan’s regulator ran through the same ministry that included the industry. This prevented many of the hard realities and strict enforcements that are vital to effective operation from being realized.
  2. Japan must develop a stronger safety culture in its nuclear energy industry. Though this ties into having an independent regulator, Dr. Lyons noted that since the accident, independent operator such as Tepco have worked tirelessly to establish this safety regime in Japan.

To support his optimism for the effectiveness of recent efforts by Japanese authorities, Dr. Lyons equates the effects of the Fukushima accident in Japan to the fallout of the Three Mile Island (TMI) disaster in the United States. He notes that before TMI, there was minimal information-sharing in the U.S., but that the accident directly resulted in the formation of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). INPO provides a forum for nuclear operators to work together and share best practices, and has proven highly effective and unifying across the industry. Dr. Lyons is hopeful that the Japanese Nuclear Safety Institute (JANSI), modeled after INPO, will have a similar effect.

Finally, Dr. Lyons briefly addresses the development of passively safe plants, which require no immediate operator or electronic intervention in the event of an accident or malfunction, staving off meltdown. These designs require significant amounts of water, but their abundance of safety makes them, in Dr. Lyons’ opinion, the necessary future in all countries, “not that you decrease the training of the operators, but that you give the operators more time to respond if there is a problem.”

Ultimately, Dr. Lyons drives home his belief that, in the wake of TMI, the U.S. nuclear industry faced similar criticism but has since regained the public trust by implementing necessary and stringent changes. He firmly believes that the Japanese can follow a similar path to win back public trust and support as well.