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Nuclear safety can’t rely on divine intervention

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A man wears protective clothing at Maralinga. Photo: Archival/National Museum of Australia
A man wears protective clothing at Maralinga. Photo: Archival/National Museum of Australia

A recurring story of modernity is human over-confidence in our own technology, typified by the exchange in Titanic between White Star managing director Bruce Ismay and ship’s architect Thomas Andrews: “But this ship can’t sink!”, “She’s made of iron, sir! I assure you, she can.”

As our systems become more complex, the possibility of catastrophic failure grows. In his book Normal Accidents, Charles Perrow writes, “Our ability to organise does not match the inherent hazards of some of our organized activities.”

As Perrow explains, the more complex systems become, the more likely they are to fail, because the possible permutations of failure increase exponentially: “No one dreamed that when X failed, Y would also be out of order, and the two failures would interact so as to both start a fire and silence the alarm.”

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Then there’s the human factor. “Time and time again, warnings are ignored, unnecessary risks taken, sloppy work done, deception and downright lying practiced.”

Complex systems fail all the time. At time of writing, many houses and businesses in Victoria are still without power because some wires were brought down in extreme weather. Last month my bank was completely offline for more than a day. In November, all 10 million customers of Optus went half a day without any service.

As inconvenient as it is, for most of us life can go on without mobile phones, internet banking, even mains power.

An issue of rather more serious implications is being discussed right now in the Federal Parliament: how to manage nuclear power and the nuclear waste that we will be lumbered with under the AUKUS submarine deal.

Nuclear radiation is no joke and, when nuclear safety fails, it fails spectacularly. Consider the Chernobyl reactor accident that has rendered an area of Ukraine the size of Sydney uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years, due to high levels of radioactivity.

We’re very lucky there haven’t been more nuclear catastrophes. Many of the lesser accidents that have happened are not very well known due to military secrecy, which lulls us into a false sense of security.

When the Cold War ended, General George Lee Butler became head of the United States Strategic Air Command and began a review of the country’s nuclear war plan. What he read disturbed him greatly.

Secrecy meant that people responsible for different parts of the project didn’t speak to each other, resulting in a plan that made little sense. In a speech in 1999 he said, “I came to appreciate the truth … we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

Australia’s Parliamentarians considering the Australian Naval Nuclear Power Safety Bill ought to give pause. The bill in its current form keeps oversight of nuclear safety in the hands of the Department of Defence. A thousand years of legal wisdom tells us that no one should be judge in their own case, it provides too much of an incentive to cover up accidents and near-misses.

The track record doesn’t give a lot of confidence. The last time the Defence Department allowed nuclear technology onto Australian soil was at Maralinga in South Australia, leaving the area contaminated and requiring the forcible removal of the indigenous population.

It’s always easier to be secretive than to be transparent but we must be vigilant about this. A rethink of the bill is a now-or-never opportunity to preserve civilian oversight of nuclear material. It’s civilians who will have to deal with the consequences of any accidents.

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