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Japan: Hard questions and no easy solutions

17 March 2011

Japan: Large-scale Floods and Earthquakes

“If I took a different way, would it have changed our fates a little?”

Asking the “what if” questions is just something we do when, looking back after a tragedy, we try to collectively understand what went wrong, what might have been prevented and what we might have done differently.  In the case of Japan’s earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster, the crisis hasn’t yet passed.

For now the world waits and watches the Fukushimi Daichii reactors, their cooling mechanisms and the small crew of workers still on site struggling to stave off the worst forms of disaster.

But while we wait we ponder – how far can we trust ourselves, and the systems we devise, to resist both predictable and unpredictable catastrophes?  The particular combination of earthquake, tsunami, nuclear accident and bad weather was unpredictable, but all of these items are studied in Japan’s disaster response planning.

Indeed, at the request of the Japanese government, in 2009 the OECD carried out review of Japan’s risk management policies concerning large-scale floods and earthquakes. Among other recommendations, the report states that: “Industries that can trigger special harm in case of flood accidents, such as chemical and nuclear industries, should be required by law to move to safer areas”.

In fact, often after a disaster strikes, it turns out that warning went unheeded, or terrible mistakes were made. At Bhopal, security systems were disabled to save money.

At Three Mile Island, an indicator on a valve gave ambiguous information.

In the world’s worst plane crash at Tenerife airport in 1977, a pilot took off without clearance. It can be the case, as for Deepwater Horizon, that neither machines nor people behave as expected.

And in the Fukushima plant, emergency generators were in place, but not on high enough ground.  So the backup system itself was vulnerable, making catastrophic failure possible. The spent fuel is stored next to the reactor, so damage to the reactor can damage the stored rods too. The “comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure” makes the reactor more vulnerable than other designs.

What are we missing about the interaction of complex systems (the human mind/will/choice patterns being one of these) that allow these huge catastrophic events to occur in spite of multiple redundant systems, failsafes and billions of dollars directed at preventing them?

What would allow us to improve risk assessment? A better understanding of human perception of risk for a start. Why we tend to minimise it, why we are overly optimistic about our ability to manage it and deal with events when they arise, why our love for the elegance of technology and engineering leaves us blind to its weaknesses.

We have to pay attention to the combination of human factors, economic opportunism and political influences that characterise decision making in a practical context. Rather than deploring these exogenous influences, they could be integrated into the process – by assuming that operators will always look for ways to save time/money/effort or that industry will resist backtracking on a technology that has been adopted.  We have to learn to factor the costs of catastrophe – environmental economic and social – into the decisions around prevention and maintenance.

Otherwise, we end up with grim advice such as that given by Yuli Andreyev, former head of the agency tasked with cleaning up after Chernobyl. Yesterday, he told the Guardian that the Japanese authorities “had to be willing to sacrifice nuclear response workers for the good of the greater public”.

Useful links

OECD work on risk management

Nuclear safety and regulation Nuclear Energy Agency

The Security of Energy Supply and the Contribution of Nuclear Energy Nuclear Energy Agency

5 Responses
  1. Therese permalink
    March 17, 2011

    Thank you for this thoughtful and sobering post. The news of the earthquake and tidal wave was already very disturbing; let us hope the nuclear damage can be contained.

  2. Jeff Biset permalink
    March 18, 2011

    many questions unsolved.
    Some thoughts about it:
    1- The worst has already been happening. The combination of earthquake and tsunami killed probably more than 20 000 people , far more than even the Tchernobyl event did, 5000 according to UNO estimations. Even in the worst scenario for the Fukushima future, there won’t be as many people killed or affected by the consequences of the irradiation. It’s funny (..) to see that 95% of information about Japan now is in relation with a possible future threat and no more about the victims dead or wounded or suffering from the consequences of what already happened.

    • March 18, 2011

      It may be sensible to focus on an hopefully lesser disaster if we can do something about it to reduce loss of lives. The earthquake and tsunami cannot be undone and we can wait a bit after everything gets quiet again to learn lessons and improve safety in case of further earthquakes/tsunamis.
      As far as the nuclear situation is concerned, in my country, Italy, in 1987 (or around that time) we voted against nuclear power (more than 90% of people rejected nuclear power). I was one of them and the reason why I voted that way was not because I don’t trust science to develop a ‘safe’ nuclear power station and to find a proper way to dispose of waste safely. I don’t know if it is scientifically possible and I’m open to all possibilities; however, I am certain that most governemnts would not be trustworthy enough to allow safe nuclear plant development, maintenance and disposal of waste.
      Despite our referendum, our government is planning to build nuclear plants in Italy and only because it would be a political suicide (there is another referendum coming in June + elections in May) after what happened in Japan they decided to wait a bit.

  3. Laura Nasr permalink
    March 18, 2011

    That even some of the suffering in Japan could have been prevented by basing actions more on logical risk assessment than on other factors (cost, convenience, etc.) should serve as a wake-up call. But this is at least the third such wake-up call (after Chernobyl and Three Mile Island), and it is clear from the way the nuclear crisis in Japan has progressed and been handled that not enough has changed. Even without specialized or detailed knowledge, it is clear at least that the emergency generators should have been on higher ground. The world must learn from this crisis in order to prevent any more unnecessary suffering.

  4. March 20, 2011

    The problem with costs is that people who would pay for better risk management procedures are not those who pay for disasters.
    Until the law force them to make up for all damages, they will still find it cheaper to kill us and get away with it.
    Let’s thing about this:
    Everybody is innocent until proven guilty. So, if we prove generators should have been on higher grounds and it was reasonable to expect it (did not require much money or competence to work it out), then we proved those in charge guilty. We present them with a huge bill and we are asked to prove they caused each item of damages and expenses on the bill, refusing to pay for any request not backed by proof.
    They would, in fact, call us liars and expect us to prove we are not defrauding them with false claims.
    Their crime was ignoring safety and it is proven. Why should we now prove we are not defrauding them?
    They should either settle any claim or prove it wrong.
    If it was like that, they would not be able to afford unsafe procedures…

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