Friday, March 18, 2011

Engineering Failures and World-Wide Consequences

The similarities between the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the ongoing nuclear Fukushima Daiichi crisis in Japan are striking.

Both were unimaginable before they happened. Both the nuclear facility and the oil rig had what was thought to be containment and shut down protection, as well as redundancy features, in the event of a serious accident. In each case, these systems failed. The response to each event was similar, a series of improvisational Hail Mary attempts to mitigate the damage, resembling a disaster movie in slow motion. Each catastrophe has long term consequences to the earth's ecosystem and human health, way beyond the immediate geographic area of its origin. The lack of contingency planning in Gulf crisis is evident again in the Japan disaster.

Surely, given the facts of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island there are commonalities with Fukushima Daiichi. No doubt the first line of defense in the construction of a nuclear facility or a deep water drilling rig has to be containment and redundancy features and bulletproof regulatory oversight, first at the national level, but perhaps with international participation as well. Too bad the UN is not a more effective institution. It needs to be in this area.

Any country that constructs these engineering marvels, for drilling oil in the deepest of oceans, or generating nuclear power, facilities that have world-wide consequences when they fail, should be required by the world community to maintain a national task force with readily available and deployable equipment to deal with catastrophic failure (rather than totally relying on the company responsible such as Tokyo Electric Power or BP). How much time was lost in dealing with Fukushima Daiichi when the tsunami destroyed its redundant pumps and power generating equipment?

Perhaps this may be oversimplification, but if we have the technology to create these engineering leviathans, we should also have the resources for a nuclear (and deep water drilling rig) immediate response task force, a small army trained for this once in a generation disaster, with the necessary deployable equipment (such as generators that could have been airlifted immediately to the Fukushima Daiichi site allowing the resumption of core cooling systems). We only need the universal will. Meanwhile, we all helplessly watch this terrible disaster unfolding in Japan.