Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Strange Saga of the Rasmussen Report

Ernest Partridge


From 1980 to 1982, The Gadfly was a Visiting Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. While at UCSB, he taught a course in "Philosophical Issues in Environmental Policy Analysis," which he later taught at UC Riverside and the University of Colorado. The course concluded with a "case study" of nuclear energy policy. While I devoutly hope that the students learned a great deal from the course, I can testify that the Professor did.  Most of all, I learned how public relations, economic imperatives, and unexamined preconceptions can overwhelm sound judgment and endanger public safety.  The "showpiece" exhibit that supported this claim is "The Rasmussen Report" which I summarized in the classroom handout which follows.

As I was assembling this month's upload of The Online Gadfly, I noticed that we had just passed the 20th anniversary of the de-authorization of the Rasmussen Report -- and event that I felt was well worth celebrating.  (April, 1999)

Concerned about public criticism of their nuclear energy ambitions, the promoters of commercial atomic energy in the Atomic Energy Commission initiated in 1972, the "Reactor Safety Study," which was to become known as "The Rasmussen Report," after its Director, Norman Rasmussen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In August, 1974, the draft Report was released with much fanfare in a public-relations extravaganza that prompted one newspaper to proclaim: "Campaigners Against Nuclear Power Stations Put to Rout." Following this triumphant entrance, scrupulous scientific assessment began behind the facade, after which it was all downhill for the Report. The AEC's successor organization, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), quietly withdrew endorsement of the Rasmussen Report in January, 1979.

Rushed into print to provide support for a renewal of the Price Anderson Act, an eighteen page "Executive Summary" of the final Report was distributed to Congress and the Press in October, 1975, and in advance of the release of the full, 2300 page Report.

Perhaps the most famous item of the Executive Summary was the claim that the chances of being killed by a nuclear power plant "transient" is about equal to that of being killed by a meteorite. This mind-catching statistic has proven to have a longevity far exceeding that of the Report which spawned it). In general, the Summary concluded that

... The likelihood of reactor accidents is much smaller than that of many non-nuclear accidents having similar consequences. All non-nuclear accidents examined in this study, including fires, explosions, toxic chemical releases, dam failures, airplane crashes, earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, are much more likely to occur and can have consequences comparable to, or larger than, those of nuclear accidents.

Closer examination revealed a startling discrepancy between the cheerful reassurances of the Executive Summary and the nine-volumes of technical information. In his splendid book, The Cult of the Atom (based upon tens of thousands of pages of AEC documents, pried loose by the Freedom of Information Act), Daniel Ford observes that

as one moves from the very technical material ... to the Executive Summary ... a change of tone as well as of technical content is evident... In the "back" of the study, there are cautionary notes, discussion of uncertainties in the data, and some sense that there may be important limitations to the results. The qualifications successively drop away as one moves toward the parts of the study that the public was intended to see. In the months following the study's completion, the honesty of the official summary ... became the most controversial issue.

The reassuring conclusions of the Rasmussen Report were based upon numerous highly questionable assumptions and methodologies. Among them:

  • By definition, the report estimated damage and casualties due to anticipated events. There is no clear acknowledgment that all possible significant events were not, and could not be, covered by the study. As it turned out, the near-disaster at Three Mile Island was just one of several "unanticipated" events.

  • In fact, whole categories of failures were excluded from the risk estimates. For example, it was assumed that back-up safety systems would always operate in case of the failure of a primary system. Given this assumption, the risk of a catastrophic accident would be the product of the probability of the independent failure of both systems, and thus highly unlikely. However, this discounted the possibility of a "common-mode failure," such as that at Browns Ferry, Alabama, in 1975 (soon after the release of the Report), where, due to faulty design, an accidental fire disabled both systems at once -- yet another event excluded by the Rasmussen rules.

  • The Report focused on mechanical and equipment failures, and discounted design flaws and "human error," as if these were in some sense insignificant. Also overlooked was the possibility of sabotage.

  • The report adopted the so-called "fault-tree" method of analysis, described by the Report as "developed by the Department of Defense and NASA ... [ and] coming into increasing use in recent years." Not so. As Daniel Ford reports, "long before {Rasmussen] adopt the fault-tree methods ... the Apollo program engineers had discarded them." [146]

  • The "probabilities" assigned to the component "events" in the "fault tree," leading to a hypothetical failure, were based upon almost pure speculation, since, due to the newness of the technology, they lacked any precedents upon which base probability assessments. (Both Rasmussen himself, and his Report, [1a] admitted as much). [Ford 141] Thus, because the Report was fundamentally an advocacy document, this gave its pro-nuclear investigators the license to concoct unrealistically low risk assessments.

  • These "low risk estimates" in the Executive Summary were startling, to say the least: "non-nuclear events," it claimed, "are about 10,000 times more likely to produce large numbers of fatalities than nuclear plants." But the footnote to this statement gave it away, when it added that such "fatalities ... are those that would be predicted to occur within a short period of time" after the accident. However, few fatalities due to radiation exposure are "short-term." In fact, as Physicist Frank von Hipple pointed out, a careful reading of the voluminous technical material would disclose that for every ten "early deaths" conceded in the Summary, the same accident would cause an additional seven thousand cancer deaths. (This was only one of the several scandalous discrepancies between the "public" Executive Summary and the Technical material in the Report, which led Morris Udall, then Chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, to demand a new Executive Summary. The NRC refused).

  • The "peer review" of the Report was perfunctory at best. The reviewers were given eleven days to assess an incomplete 3,000 page draft report -- a schedule virtually designed to yield invalid assessments. Even so, many of the referees returned withering criticisms, especially of the statistical methods employed by the studies. The findings of this review group were not released by the AEC or the NRC, and the published Report was unaltered by these criticisms.

These and numerous other flaws in the study led one critic to wryly comment, that "the chance of the Rasmussen Report being substantially wrong is somewhat more than the chance of your being hit by a meteorite."

Though the general public was much impressed by the public relations show orchestrated by AEC, informed professional investigators immediately began the erosion of credibility. Among these were the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and, most significantly, an independent panel set up by the American Physical Society and chaired by Harold Lewis of the University of California, Santa Barbara. Each of these returned serious criticisms of the Report.

All this bad news eventually led the Reactor Safety Study into the halls of Congress. Daniel Ford describes what followed:

In some cases [congressional] members and staff probed the issues [of reactor safety] carefully, prepared detailed follow-up reports, and tried to bring about needed reforms. Congressman Morris Udall's Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, for example, held extensive hearings on the validity of the Reactor Safety Study. His protests about the misleading manner in which the report's findings were presented to the public forced the NRC, in January 1979, to repudiate the results of the study. [p. 226]

And so, at length, the relentless discipline of science and scholarship, combined with a rare display of uncompromising congressional oversight investigation, brought about the downfall of the AEC/NRC "Reactor Safety Study."

The NRC's "withdrawal of endorsement" stood in stark contrast to its release, scarcely four years earlier. This time there were no publicity releases, media interviews or press conferences. It was hoped that the announcement would go unnoticed amidst the usual gross output of news out of Washington. Given the widespread public opposition to nuclear power, this expectation was bound to be frustrated.

As with Alvin Weinberg's "Faustian Bargain," and the Price-Anderson waiver of substantial liability, the Rasmussen Report was yet another attempt at justification of "the peaceful atom" which backfired on the proponents. Historians looking back on this technological extravaganza may note, with some bewilderment, that however severe the attacks by the critics, commercial nuclear power was, in the final analysis, inadvertently done in by its defenders.

Copyright 1993, by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .