Nuclear accidents, causes and consequences



Milton Levenson, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), DOE

Date and Time

January 8, 2018 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Open to the public.

No RSVP required


William J. Perry Conference Room

Encina Hall, 2nd floor

616 Serra Street

Stanford, CA 94305

Abstract: The safety of a nuclear and any complex system is enhanced by analyzing failures and incorporating the lessons learned into ongoing and future activities.

The triad of hardware, software, and human factors drives nuclear safety. Although each of the 14 reactor core melt incidents that have occurred involved a different reactor design, in none of these cases was the root cause a failure of a major component or an error in analysis. In the six major core melts with which I am most familiar, human factors--the interface of human beings with the hardware and software--played a surprisingly important and under-appreciated role in accident initiation or progression.

The pattern revealed by these analyses of accidents implies that human factors must be better evaluated and integrated into nuclear designs. Several examples of failure modes and the role played by human factors in these accidents are discussed.

Speaker Bio: Milton Levenson started his nuclear work on the Manhattan Project in January 1944. His first assignment was in the development of the barrier for the Gaseous Diffusion plant. Later that year he was transferred to what is now the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to work on chemical separations projects.

In 1948 he joined the Argonne National Laboratory as part of the Atomic Energy Agency relocation of nuclear reactor research. He eventually became Argonne’s Associate Laboratory Director for Energy and the Environment.

In 1973 he joined the newly formed Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) as director of nuclear power. In 1980 when President Reagan appointed Kenneth Davis the Deputy Secretary of Energy, Levenson joined the Bechtel Corporation in the role vacated by Davis.

In 1990 he retired from Bechtel. He continues to consult and currently is one of the six Senior Technical Advisors (STA) to the Nuclear Explosives Division (NED) of DoE's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Much of his career has involved safety. He was personally involved in the aftermath of six of the 14 core melt events. He was asked to take charge of the 100 technical staff assembled at TMI to provide technical support to the utility staff. He was extensively involved with Chernobyl, co-chairing with Dr. Velikov, Gorbachev's Science Advisor, a detailed review of the cause of the accident. He chaired the Argonne Safety Committee that reviewed the EBR 1 accident, the Borax 1 experiment, and the SL 1 project. He had secondary roles in connection with the Lucens and Fermi 1 accidents.

Levenson is a member of the National Academy of Engineering. He has served on 30 National Academy studies and chaired 12 of them. He is a recipient of the Robert E. Wilson Award of the American Institute of Chemical Engineering for contributions to nuclear chemical engineering.  He received a special award from the American Nuclear Society for work defining the Source Term, the basic value that largely determines the consequences of nuclear accidents.

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