The US House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on April 6, 2011 billed as “The U.S. Government Response to the Nuclear Power Plant Incident in Japan”.
During the hearing, Dr. Edwin Lyman of the UCS and some of his allies in Congress made a point of discussing some internal emails from regulators at the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Those emails questioned some of the assumptions made during an exercise in severe accident consequence analysis. Dr. Lyman’s interpretation of the existence of those emails was that they indicated a controversy and an uncertainty at the NRC.
From the point of view of a guy who has engaged in “what if” discussions about nuclear energy accident scenarios off and on for about three decades, I could not help getting frustrated as I heard the discussion. Martin J. Virgilio, Deputy Executive Director, Reactor and Preparedness Programs, had testified earlier and had provided a very polite explanation of the fact that the NRC, like the rest of the nuclear industry, encourages questions and doubts. It is part of our training and culture, inculcated to all practitioners from the earliest days of the nuclear industry. We are supposed to have a questioning attitude, to avoid complacency and to express a bit of humility.Many of the very best engineers are inherently contrarians and willing to argue about anything for the sake of the learning that a good argument can engender.
As an outsider to the discussions about the State of the Art Reactor Consequence Analysis (SOARCA) analysis undertaken by the NRC, I find it encouraging that the UCS was able to locate a series of emails that questioned the assumptions. I would be worried if such an activity were completed without any questions being raised. That would indicate a dangerous “groupthink” attitude where people were expecting full agreement.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that nuclear professionals are often misunderstood – we are inherently prone to doubt ourselves, to express those doubts and to strive for continuing improvement. As Dr. Michael Corrandini testified at the same hearing, engineers are taught to trust no one’s math other than their own – and then only if they have second and third checked it.