One mistake by a small group of technicians, as at Chernobyl, or a single slip by a lone operator, as at Three Mile Island in the USA, can produce an accident with incalculable consequences for whole communities, even nations. The safety regime, it has long been accepted, must be at the very heart of the nuclear business.
Thus there will be real and justifiable public alarm at the possibility that employees at British Nuclear Fuels Limited's Sellafield plant in Cumbria have been taking shortcuts with safety, as The Independent has reported this week. It will be compounded by BNFL's own admission of "irregularities". Irregularities are something an atomic power plant can never afford. Sellafield is built to be earthquake-proof; it must also be corruption-proof. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate must quickly establish whether it is indeed the case that testing on some of BNFL's new mixed plutonium and uranium oxide (MOX) fuel, highly-radioactive assemblies destined for a long sea voyage to Japan, has been omitted, and data falsified to hide the fact. But it must probe further. Were there management pressures on workers to do this? This is BNFL's most important contract. Were there deadlines looming that meant safety was sacrificed? The answers had better be good, and come quickly.
BNFL was for a long time protected from too much awkward scrutiny by Margaret Thatcher's personal enthusiasm for atomic power, and it benefits from a similar enthusiasm from Tony Blair. But the company should not presume upon public sympathy. The Sellafield plant does enough environmental damage as it is with its radioactive discharges into the Irish Sea, currently licensed though these are; the people of Ireland are rightly fed up with tritium in their lobsters. Its MOX project has been seen by many commentators as misguided from the start, dreamed up as a way of using up its ever- growing stockpile of plutonium, whose main purpose historically has been to make atom bombs.
If it is now found that BNFL itself has been playing fast and loose with safety, it will fall off the tightrope of public acceptance that the nuclear power industry has always been obliged to walk.