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A Disaster's Eerie Echoes

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An unexpected series of events leads to an unimaginable environmental disaster. Government and industry officials minimize the threat, saying initially that matters are under control. As events cascade, engineers and officials are forced to resort to increasingly desperate measures to prevent further harm. 

It is uncanny how closely the script of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan mimics that of the BP oil spill last spring in the Gulf of Mexico.

There is still much we don’t know about what’s happening with the stricken nuclear reactors in Japan, but we know enough to be reminded that no engineer can foresee – much less plan for – all of the possible insults and challenges a given piece of technology may face. We know that relying on engineered safety systems to protect the environment from inherently dangerous activities will inevitably result in at least occasional failure. And we know that the consequences of such failures can be harrowing.

We’ll have much more on the situation in Japan in the upcoming days and weeks as the discussion turns to the future of nuclear power in the United States. Meanwhile, however, I’d like to reprint in part, a blog post from April 28, 2010, as the scope of the BP oil spill became apparent:

[T]he Gulf disaster raises one other issue that is critical – and whose implications extend well beyond the debate about offshore drilling.

Deep offshore drilling is an inherently risky activity that relies on technological failsafes to avert environmental catastrophe. The chances of those failsafes … uh, failing … is small. But the consequences of even a single failure are potentially massive, as residents of the Gulf Coast may soon find out.

Oil drilling is not alone in this regard – high risk/low probability events are a potential problem with many technologically complex activities. Think about nuclear power plants. Or interconnected systems such as the electric grid. Or the introduction of new toxic chemicals into the marketplace. Or the creation of genetically engineered organisms.

It is no coincidence that on so many of these issues, environmentalists – who have seen this story play out before with Three Mile Island, Bisphenol-A in tomato cans, the collapse of the Northeast electricity grid in 2003, ad infinitum – are the ones to raise alarms, while industry (joined, often, “sensible” people in the media, academia or politics) counsels that the risk of a mishap is small and that, even if one were to occur, the impacts will be easy to contain.

It also doesn’t take too much imagination to replace the engineers frantically deploying robots, giant underwater cones, and even “controlled burns” of the oil slick at sea with those scrambling to find ways to bury carbon dioxide from coal plants underground or considering seeding the atmosphere with particles to ameliorate the impacts of global warming.

Technological fixes and redundant safety systems can reduce the chances of high-risk events. But as Charles Perrow’s book, Normal Accidents, theorizes, technological solutions can never completely eliminate the risk, and can sometimes make things worse. The problem, as Perrow puts it, is that we have married incomprehensibly complex organizations and technological systems with exceedingly risky activities, making failure of those systems not only possible, but ultimately unavoidable.

Or, to sum it up a different way: stuff happens. It’s an iron law of nature. And the accident in the Gulf reminds us that, when it does happen in the midst of an inherently risky endeavor, the implications can be severe.

Which brings us back to the choices we as a nation must make about our energy future. On one hand are large-scale, inherently risky activities such as drilling for oil far offshore, burying millions of metric tons of carbon dioxide underground, or firing up dozens of new nuclear power plants. On the other hand are small, distributed, less risky options such as solar power, wind power, and energy efficiency.

Beyond questions of cost or viability, it is important for decision-makers to consider worst-case scenarios when evaluating these options. All in all, for example, I would much rather have something go wrong with a single wind turbine in Nantucket Sound than a single oil well in the Gulf.

We’ve often argued in our work that the less risky options are capable of addressing global warming and solving our energy problems – and can do so at lower long-term cost. But it is also true that these options are beneficial in and of themselves, representing a million small bets on a better future rather than a single, large “all-in” wager that puts the future of our environment at risk.

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