Monday, March 21, 2011

Never Let a Good Crisis Go To Waste

“You don’t ever want a crisis to go to waste; it’s an opportunity to do important things that you would otherwise avoid.” So said Rahm Emanuel, memorably, several years ago.  Perhaps taking a page from the Emanuel book, the Union of Concerned Scientists took the opportunity last Thursday to release a report chronicling a series of problems it had investigated at U.S. nuclear plants.*  Apparently the events in Japan pumped plenty of fresh oxygen into the UCS war room in time for them to trot out their latest list of concerns regarding nuclear plant safety.

[UCS senior scientist Edwin] “Lyman was speaking in a conference call with reporters on the release of a report examining critical problems — known as “near misses” — at various nuclear facilities in the United States last year, and the N.R.C.’s handling of critical problems”

David Lochbaum, the author of the report and the director of the nuclear safety program for the organization, was quoted as:

[The report] “also suggested that federal regulators needed to do more to investigate why problems existed in the first place — including examining the overall safety culture of companies that operate nuclear power plants — rather than simply order them to be fixed.”

It could be that the UCS is aiming at the heart of the recent discussions surrounding the NRC’s new policy statement on safety culture.  It is clear that the NRC has little appetite to regulate the safety culture of its licensees; instead urging licensees to maintain a strong safety culture and and taking action only if “results” are not acceptable.  UCS would like specific issues, such as the “near misses” in their report, to be broadly interpreted to establish a more fundamental, cultural flaw in the enterprise itself.

Perhaps the larger question raised by the events in Japan is the dominance of natural phenomena in challenging man-made structures, and whether safety culture provides any insulation.  While the earthquake itself seemed fairly well contained at the nuclear plants, the tsunami easily over powered the sea wall at the facility and caused widespread disability of crucial plant systems.  Does this sound familiar?  Does it remind one of a Category 5 hurricane sweeping aside the levees in New Orleans?  Or the overwhelming forces of an oil well blowout brushing aside the isolation capability of a blowout preventer? 

John McPhee’s 1990 book The Control of Nature chronicles a number of instances of man’s struggle against nature - in his view, one that is inevitably bound to fail.  Often the very acts undertaken to “control nature” contribute to future failures of that control.  McPhee cites the leveeing of the Mississippi, leading to faster channel flows, more silting, more leveeing, and ultimately the kind of macro disaster occurring in Katrina.  Or the “debris bins” built in the canyons above Los Angeles communities.  The bins fill over successive storms, eventually leading to failures of the bins themselves and catastrophic mud and debris floods in the downstream valleys.

It is probably inevitable that in the aftermath of Japan there will be calls to up the design criteria of nuclear plants to higher levels of earthquakes and other natural phenomena.  The expectation will be that this will provide the absolute protection desired by the public or groups such as UCS.  Until of course the next storm or earthquake that is incrementally larger, or in a worse location or in combination with some other event, that supersedes the more stringent assumptions.

Safety culture cannot deliver on an expectation that safety is absolute or without limits. It can and should emphasize the priority and unflagging attention to safety that maximizes the capacity of a facility and its staff to withstand unforeseen challenges .   We know that the Japan event proves the former.  It will be equally important to determine if it also showed the latter.   

*  T.Zeller Jr., "Citing Near Misses, Report Faults Both Nuclear Regulators and Operators," New York Times, Green: A Blog About Energy and the Environment (Mar 17, 2011, 1:50 PM)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for your comment. We read them all. We'd like to display them under their respective posts on our main page but that's not how Blogger works.