THERE IS AN ANALOGY worth pursuing between running a nuclear reactor and flying a commercial airliner. An airline pilot, like a reactor operator, holds the safety of a great many people in his hands. The job is generally pretty routine, but there is always the possibility of a sudden desperate emergency. Pilots are trained-and-paid-for that moment. But there the analogy breaks dwon: Power station operators are not.
Among all the safety improvements that will follow the accident at Three Mile Island, reexamination of the operators' training will be crucial. In the sequence of things that went wrong, someone mistakenly turned off the primary cooling pumps. The Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards recommends substantial improvements in instrumentation to get more and better information to the control room. Doubtless that can help to prevent reactor accidents in the future. But the value of the information will always depend on the speed and skill with which technicians react to it.
Which brings us back to the airlines analogy. Senior pilots flying the big jets for the airlines can earn upwards of $80,000 a year. Reactor operators get perhaps one third as much. Airlines require their pilots to be college graduates. Reactor operators are typically high school graduates who learned the job in the Navy or, more likely, by running conventional power plants fueled by coal or oil. Both pilots and reactor operators must hold federal licenses. But the pilot's licenses comes up for renewal every six months. Every airline carries on a program of continuous training, under the eye of an inspector from the Federal Aviation Administration. There is constant drill in responses to the widest imaginable range of malfunctions.
Like the airlines, utilities and reactor manufacturers have simulators on which their personnel are trained. But it appears that the simulators stay within a narrow range of predictable troubles. The various inquiries into the Three Mile Island accident will presumably see whether the men on duty there had ever faced, on a simulator, anything like the original pump failure. Certainly they had never confronted the situation that rapidly developed after the wrong switches were subsequently pulled.
The point is that in all respects-education, training and pay-standards for airline pilots are far higher than for reactor technicians. The jobs are similar only in that a serious mistake, in either of them, can be tragic. There is a clear need for the Nuclear Regulartory Commission to begin designing a licensing and training system on the same scale as the FAA's.