The town on Plymouth, on England’s south coast, can trace its history back to the bronze age. A natural harbor, it has a proud maritime tradition. The pilgrim fathers left from its port in 1620 to settle the New World. It is currently home to the largest operational naval base in Western Europe.
On 29 July, last year, Plymouth almost became a radioactive ghost-town – the victim of a reactor meltdown due to a technical mishap. The UK’s own Pripyat or Fukushima. Or so recent disclosures suggest.
Plymouth isn’t even home to a nuclear reactor. Not a permanent one anyway. Its naval base services many of the UK’s nuclear submarines. The near catastrophe was was caused when a series of “unidentified defects” [echoes of Normal Accidents here – ed] led to the loss of both primary and secondary power to the onsite subs’ coolant systems for more than 90 minutes.
A subsequent investigation pinned the failure on a “defect in the central nuclear switchboard.” A failure that would almost certainly have been deemed “impossible” by anyone studying the system’s blueprints in advance.
Who knows how close Plymouth came that night. The incident certainly seems serious enough, but the secrecy around such events invariably prohibits proper scrutiny for decades. I highlight the scare mainly as a rejoinder to those who dismiss revelations about near-misses in the past with the argument that technologies have changed since then, making past failures irrelevant.
Technologies change, yes, but the fact that complex systems fail for unexpected reasons that defy our risk analyses remains. It is as constant as our willingness to wager, over and over, that this time, this time, the systems are safe and the assurances are accurate.