Friday, March 18, 2011

What was the plan?

Some time ago I was working in a place that had lots of little plastic discs on heavy stainless steel spindles laying about.  It had been a tempestuous Summer storm season that had seen more than a few tornadoes .  One day I walked into the plant and asked the people around me, "What's the plan in the event of a tornado?"*

The first response was usually a wry laugh, followed by the assumption that we would all die.  A few people knew where the stairwell was that led to our secret downstairs region affectionately known as "The Pit."  Some people knew of the other stairwell on the other side of the building that also led there.  None of us ever went there, usually.  And more importantly, tornadoes never hit this area. Usually. 

One did, back in 1998, in a place called Lake Carey.  It sucked a man and his grandmother out of their lake cottage.  They were both killed.

Just because an event is rare doesn't mean there shouldn't be a contingency plan in place for it.  Indeed, it's the rare events that are exactly the things we have to plan for.  So it's raining? Take an umbrella.  So it's been raining to the point that water is coming in your cellar? Break out the pumps. So it's been raining to the point that bridges are too dangerous to use, and access to major roads is cut off?  OK, what's the plan?

In 2005 we saw the answer to the question "What is the plan if a major hurricane causes Lake Pontchartrain to overflow and inundate New Orleans?"  There wasn't one, not really, causing surprisingly smug reactions in some neighboring states.  And a few weeks later we found that the Texas plan for evacuating senior citizens in the face of another hurricane apparently involved incinerating some of them.

In-between those two disasters I stopped and wondered: what would be the evacuation plan for this area?  I envisioned a variety of disaster scenarios - floods, forest fires, a nuclear disaster at the local power plant, even a major earthquake - and tried to see how evacuation would work in each case.**  I tried to run these past some friends who assured me that I was being ridiculous.  The likelihood of any one of these disasters was so small that it was a waste of mental energy to even think about such contingencies.

The Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant was a robustly engineered facility.  It was built to withstand an earthquake and a tsunami of magnitudes well beyond what had ever before been experienced locally.  But when an earthquake with a locally unprecedented magnitude of 8.9 struck off the northeast coast of Japan on the afternoon of March 11, Fukushima Dai-Ichi's emergency systems were put to the test.  When primary cooling pumps were knocked out, emergency diesel pumps kicked in to keep coolant flowing and keep the core (and the stored spent cooling rods) from overheating.

Then the tsunami hit, a great monster of a thing.  And it knocked out the emergency pumps.  So now what?


Apparently the disaster preparations at Fukushima Dai-Ichi assumed that the emergency systems would not fail.  The catastrophic events necessary to call the emergency systems into play were almost inconceivable; to assume that an additional disaster would knock out the emergency response to such an event must have been laughable.  A waste of mental energy.

So there was no Plan B.

At least, that's the generous assumption, the one that assumes a failure of imagination that has led to - fifty?  one hundred and fifty? - brave employees of the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant to endanger themselves, possibly to sacrifice themselves, in the course of trying to fend off a greater disaster with far-reaching consequences, while executives of that same company, a company that has been accused of deliberately soft-pedaling the severity of the situation in their reports to the Japanese government, and the people of Japan, and the rest of the world, weep about the bravery and sacrifice of these heroes.

The not-so-generous assumption is that that was the Plan B:  in the event of a catastrophic failure of the back-up systems, send some employees in to deal with it.  Express regret at and gratitude for their sacrifice.  Make nominal payments of compensation to their families.  Carry on with business as usual.

We've seen this, again and again.  The Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico just blew up, killing eleven workers and creating a gusher of crude oil polluting the Gulf coast?  Hit it with dispersant.  It won't fix anything, but it will prevent an unsightly slick from forming on the top of the water - improving the optics, as they say.  A coal mine disaster at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia has killed many workers, threatening continued production at all of Massey Energy's sites?  Shut the families of the dead up as quickly as possible with payouts tied to gag orders - and remind all the other locals that their employment options are basically Massey or nothing. In neither case was there a Plan B to effectively deal with a low-probability catastrophic failure.  And in both cases the price of such a failure was enormous.

What the final outcome of the events at Fukushima Dai-Ichi will be is unknown.  Perhaps the heroic efforts being performed will halt the continuing advancement of the disaster, allowing cleanup to begin. Perhaps the disaster will result in an uninhabitable zone like the area around Chernobyl, gradually being reclaimed by the wilderness.  But one thing is for certain: somewhere, someday, there will be additional disasters, almost unthinkable low-probability events with enormous consequences.  When these things happen, will there be plans for dealing with the consequences?

*This would have been a good question to have asked at the glass factory where I worked during my Summers in college.  Large, heavy TV faceplates were everywhere, and a huge furnace filled with molten glass dominated the building.  Yeah, a tornado there would have sucked a lot.

**I didn't think of the related situation where the disaster itself is the shutdown of the escape routes - or just normal travel routes.  In the aftermath of the Valentine's Day Storm of 2007, routes 80 and 81 were shut down for days, and a considerable amount of interstate traffic was rerouted along relatively rickety bridges in Nanticoke.


Linkmeister said...

RE: Footnote 2

Back in the early 1980s we had a tsunami warning. It seemed like every driver in Central and East Honolulu headed west, clogging the roads for hours. Problem with that was (and is), the main E-W roads are within a mile of the coastline. We were lucky; there was no tsunami that evening.

This time around there was, and it did millions of dollars of damage to boat harbors and Kona coastal hotels. Fortunately for most of us, it got here at 3:20am on a Saturday morning, so the majority of us weren't at work.

Betz said...

harold, you are making me scared to leave the house!