Swans Commentary » swans.com March 28, 2011  



The Unspoken Lesson From The Japan Disaster


by Joel S. Hirschhorn





(Swans - March 28, 2011)   Here is what none of the experts and pundits have talked about in the endless discussions of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor disaster in Japan. A fundamental but little recognized problem with technological optimism and hubris is that worst case scenarios are rarely the worst possible case. This is crucial when it comes to understanding whether or not complex, large-scale, and potentially lethal technologies, such as nuclear energy reactors, truly have sufficient built-in safety technologies.

Clearly in the present Japan situation the several nuclear reactors built at the edge of the land on the Pacific Ocean coast did not have sufficient and effective backup systems to maintain critically-needed cooling of the reactor fuel rods. Why not?

Engineers and scientists do not have a good track record of accurately forecasting or estimating worst possible or nightmare scenarios upon which adequate redundant systems would be designed, constructed, and maintained. There are two reasons for this.

First, engineers and scientists do not necessarily have creative enough minds to define severe multiple events that could strike a specific technological operation. What human and natural history tells us is that terrible things happen when there are a series of events and failures hitting a system at one time. They look back at history and fail to recognize that something that may not have ever happened may indeed happen in the future. That nature can come up with previously unimaginable catastrophes. There is every indication, for example, that the Japanese failed to take into account a huge tsunami hitting a coastal area struck by a stupendous earthquake. Why not? Certainly it was well known that major earthquakes had and would continue to hit Japan. And surely the potential for generation of large tsunamis from earthquakes was also known. Thus, technical personnel should have anticipated the loss of backup cooling systems dependent on generators that could be knocked out and battery power that would never be sufficient to maintain necessary cooling.

Second, even when engineers and scientists are able to imagine virtually unimaginable worst case scenarios, the enormous high costs of actually building safety systems that could respond to such scenarios are routinely vetoed by management for economic reasons. They just do not want to escalate the capital and operating costs to provide the equipment and other costs that have a very low probability of ever being needed. Low probability for very high impact scenarios inevitably surrender to financial considerations. When it comes to nuclear energy reactors, for example, the relative competitiveness of them versus fossil fuel energy plants could be wiped out by the money required to account for truly worst case possible futures.

Low probability nightmare realities can only be anticipated when technological optimism and financial cost-benefit analyses are not allowed to dictate major decisions about complex projects. Risk assessments come down to multiplying probability times impact. This allows very low probabilities to produce low risks for even the highest conceivable impact scenarios. But history keeps telling us that even the most unlikely events continue to happen and wreck havoc and awful pain and suffering on vulnerable populations.

What confronts nations worldwide now is whether they learn effectively from the current Japan disaster for which human decisions did not protect people through sufficient investments in safety technology. How much is modern society willing to invest in preventing horrible impacts of natural disasters? So far, not enough.

What is improbable should not be discounted. It must be protected against. If more nuclear energy plants are to be built and currently operating ones are to be maintained, then a hard-hitting reexamination of nuclear energy is desperately needed. By the way, aside from nuclear plant meltdowns and radiation emissions, at this time we have not yet heard about how nuclear waste located on the plant sites may also pose serious health risks.


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About the Author

Joel S. Hirschhorn was formerly a full professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and senior staffer at the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the National Governors Association. He now writes about politics and government, and is the author of Delusional Democracy: Fixing the Republic Without Overthrowing the Government and Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health And Money.   (back)


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Published March 28, 2011