Safe Enough? The Origins and Influence of Probabilistic Risk Assessment
Abstract: Since the dawn of the Atomic Age, nuclear experts have labored to imagine the unimaginable and prevent it. They confronted a deceptively simple question: When is a reactor “safe enough” to adequately protect the public from catastrophe? Far from simple, this search to quantify accident risk proved to be a tremendously complex and controversial endeavor, one that altered the very notion of safety in nuclear power and beyond. Thomas Wellock, the historian at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, will trace these efforts by experts to quantify accident risk. Across seven decades and numerous accidents and events, the quantification of risk has transformed society’s understanding of the hazards posed by complex technologies and what it takes to make them safe enough.
Bio: Thomas Wellock is the historian at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). He is the author of Safe Enough? A History of Nuclear Power and Accident Risk (March 2021) published by the University of California Press. He has published two other books, Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978 and Conserving the Nation: The Conservation and Environmental Movements, 1870-2000, as well as numerous articles on the history of nuclear power and environmentalism.
Prior to joining the NRC, he was a professor of U.S. history at Central Washington University, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley. He also worked as a reactor test engineer at the Electric Boat Shipyard in Groton, CT and a systems engineer at the Davis-Besse nuclear power station near Toledo, OH.