Richard D North column

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The Independent Online
Chernobyl hangs over the nuclear industry the way Exxon Valdez hangs over the oil industry or Bhopal over the chemicals industry. The answer one wants from any of them is: what can we do to avoid future accidents?

For amusement, I have been wondering which race (or is culture a more neutral word?) we would most like to see run our neighbourhood nuclear reactor? At Chernobyl, the people were Russians, mostly. Spiritual people, the Russians, and drinkers. We don't think of them as natural seekers after reliability and quiet competence. But they got a man into space first, so they must be better at making machinery than their Ladas and dodgy watches might suggest.

How about the Finns? I once went round the control room of a Scandinavian reactor and it was full of young men with very long hair, sitting under potted plants, listening to The Eagles. A mite laid-back, I thought. But why should not diligence co-exist with relaxation? Indeed, might not being relaxed be the crucial precursor to effective vigilance?

What about the Japanese? The West has had to learn a good deal about attention to detail from the Far East. Certainly, almost every race on earth feels free to regard the Japanese as somehow really different from the rest of us. But Japanese competence would only come at the cost of that people's secretiveness. If technical competence is one of the things badly needed around a difficult plant, the other thing is a willingness to own up to mistakes. Confidence that the Japanese would be good at fostering this attitude is somehow dented by the news that the man who was investigating a recent accident committed suicide, unable to bear the deep embarrassment that his investigations would cause his colleagues.

Would the Bulgarians make suitable candidates? They certainly are running reactors, and to a casual observer, the plant looked rather scruffy. But does an obsession with appearance guarantee real efficiency? The Bulgarians seem a free and easy, not to say, bibulous sort of people. But a Scottish nuclear engineer pointed out that anyone standing on the terraces at Murrayfield might think that Scottish men have barely evolved from the cave. Yet among the wildmen there might, he pointed out, be men who usefully ran the efficient Scottish nuclear industry.

So one concludes that the business of running something as difficult as a nuclear power station can be done by people of a very different temperament, each evolving an attitude of mind which overcomes some bits of the national temperament, and builds on others. Some such assumption is necessary. After all, the British are very good nuclear engineers and managers, and yet we are famous for being dangerously Luddite romantics.

Of course, the answer might not be which race of men should run the world's nuclear plant. Women of whatever race might do it better. Women tend to be more sober, more concentrated, and more careful than men. They are supposed to be more co-operative and more nurturing: both good qualities around difficult technologies. In short, women do good housekeeping, which happens to be the way nuclear people talk about their safety culture. It's a pity so many women have so much work to do already.