In March 2011, a quake-tsunami sent three reactors into meltdown at Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. More than 150,000 people lost their homes. Towns in the exclusion zone around the plant are still abandoned today. It was the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986.
Overnight, nuclear power's position as a safe alternative to increasingly scarce and expensive fossil fuels was lost. After Fukushima, public confidence in nuclear safety plummeted.
The plant's engineers called it a sotegai – an event 'beyond hypothetical possibility'. But new research from our Professor of Operations and Decision Analysis, Professor Ashraf Labib, shows the opposite. The disaster at Fukushima was preventable.
In both his Fukushima research and his book, Learning from Failures, Professor Labib finds that man-made disasters are often caused by people ignoring simple lessons from past failures.
His research shows that was the case at Fukushima.
The Fukushima meltdown occurred because multiple failures took place at the same time, but the facility failed to address those interdependencies
The close relationship between Japan’s nuclear industry and regulator meant that adequate risk assessments weren’t completed. Simple equipment and design improvements that could have contained the problem were missing - including a lack of waterproof seals on all control room doors.
A deficiency in forward planning was also at fault. The facility failed to prepare for multiple failures occurring at once, as happened when the quake-tsunami hit. Events that seemed unlikely simply weren't planned for.
‘There was too much belief in the safety of nuclear power in Japan,’ Labib said. ‘The relationship between Japan’s nuclear industry and nuclear regulator caused a conflict of interest in that area. They all believed the plant was more resilient than it really was.
'The Fukushima meltdown occurred because multiple failures took place at the same time. But the facility failed to assess those interdependencies. It lacked the ability to model scenarios where more than one hazard takes place at once.’
Professor Labib's research shows that the correct techniques and models can help develop plans for even the most unlikely events. He also shows how apparently unrelated elements - such as management culture - can play a role in major incidents like Fukushima.
Another reason for man-made disasters is a failure to grasp the true meaning of management concepts like 'Lean Thinking'
'Another reason for man-made disasters is a failure to grasp the true meaning of management concepts like 'Lean Thinking',’ Professor Labib said. 'Instead of reducing waste while delivering more value, it becomes a way to cut costs. It's then taken too far and that often ends in the sacrifice of safety.’
Six years after the meltdown, a court ruling held Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) and the Japanese government liable for negligence in Fukushima. The combined failures of Japan’s government and nuclear regulator led to calls for the formation of an independent global nuclear safety commission. The ongoing disaster continues to cast a shadow over the world's nuclear industry.
But as Professor Labib’s research shows, the task ahead for governments is clear. Only by learning from past failures can they revive atomic power and restore public confidence in its safety.