Sunday, January 15, 2017

Human Error and Nuclear Technology



Human Error
Humankind has created a technology we cannot control.”  Martin Rees, world-renowned cosmologist and Britain’s Astronomer Royal.

Photo © Boyd Norton


Human Error
Humankind has created a technology we cannot control.”  Martin Rees, world-renowned cosmologist and Britain’s Astronomer Royal.

Audubon magazine published my article on the Three Mile Island accident in May of 1980, a little over a year after the TMI meltdown happened. I traveled widely during that year, visiting nuclear plants, attending hearings in Washington, observing an actual test in Idaho of the loss of coolant experienced by TMI. While gathering material for the article, I visited a nuclear power plant under construction in North Carolina. I remember how I leaned over the temporary railing and stared down into a gargantuan pressure vessel at Duke Power’s McGuire Nuclear Generating Station, under construction near Charlotte, North Carolina. Blinding blue-white arcs of welding torches imparted an eerie, almost stroboscopic glow to the smooth interior of the great stainless steel container that was being put together, piece by piece. This was the crucial vessel that would restrain the nuclear fission while withstanding enormous internal pressures and searing bombardment by neutrons and gamma rays. And I wondered at the time:
How do you build the perfect machine? For it takes nearly that to contain and control the fission process safely.
How do you guard against
the hung-over welder
the foreman whose wife just left him
the stoned and careless electrician
the negligent draftsman
the engineer appeasing management
the inspector fearful of losing his job
the inexperienced designer
the alcoholic manager making decisions
the incompetent reactor operator
or the CEO whose primary concern is profits?
In the end, every nuclear accident can be traced to human error since it is humans who design, build and operate nuclear reactors.

This is an excerpt from my newest book Tickling the Dragon's Tail, being completed. For those who might be interested here is the first chapter published last fall in the literary magazine, The Kenyon Review. It's about the day I blew up a nuclear reactor - deliberately. Link

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