Normal Accidents Charles Perrow

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Normal Accident at Three Mile Island
Charles Perrow

A

ccidents will happen, including ones in nuclear plants. But by and large, we believe accidents can be prevented through better training, equipment, or design, or their effects can be localized and minimized through safety systems. The accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) is being assessed in this fashion. The industry started a new training program, the equipment at the Babcock and Wilcox plants is being improved, the design has been modified, the utility chastised--all useful, if minor, steps. Furthermore, to nuclear proponents, such as Edward Teller, the accident proved that the effects can be localized and minimized. It is safe. No one has died as a direct result of radiation injuries in all the years of commercial nuclear plant operation. But the accident at TMI was not a preventable one, and the amount of radiation vented into the atmosphere could easily have been much larger, and the core might have melted, rather than just being damaged. TMI was a "normal accident"; these are bound to occur at some plant at some time, and bound to occur again, even in the best of plants. It was preceded by at least sixteen other serious accidents or near accidents in the short life of nuclear energy in the United States, and we should expect about sixteen more in the next five years of operation--that is, in industry time, the next four hundred years of operation of the plants existing now and scheduled to come on stream. Normal accidents emerge from the characteristics of the systems themselves. They cannot be prevented. They are unanticipated. It is not feasible to train, design, or build in such a way as to anticipate all eventualities in complex systems where the parts are tightly coupled. They are incomprehensible when they occur. That is why operators usually assume something else is happening, something that…...

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