Lessons from Japan: What the earthquake and tsunami should teach us #pauto #safety

First, I want to extend my sympathy, and that of all the employees at Putman Media, to our Japanese colleagues who are suffering through the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory, and certainly the worst natural disaster to befall Japan in its long history.

This disaster shows us once again the limits of preparedness and planning. As one of the commentators was saying on the news this morning, "I have seen all kinds of disaster scenes, but this looks like damage from a war. The affected areas look like they were bombed."

Now we are watching the Japanese nuclear industry handle a critical situation at the Fukushima nuclear station. Please note I did not say "disaster" nor did I say "crisis."

The reason I did not, is because the situation is not either a disaster or a crisis.

The argument has already become a religious one. That is, it is based on premises that are unprovable and grounded in faith, and the parties are unpersuasible about the validity of the arguments of the other side(s) of the debate.

But before this blog post sparks a religious argument here, I would like to make some points. To do this, I would like to point out that I have spoken with one of the designers of the Fukushima reactors, and solicited his thoughts. I'm also basing my comments on my own experiences in designing products and systems in the process business.

Please note that the containment has not broken. Containment structures, back then, were designed to a value for g-loading, locally, and not for Richter scale values. Very smart. Because the Richter scale value is based on the shock at the epicenter, while local g-loading is a far better design metric.

The expert I spoke to estimated that the design g-loading of the containment units was probably analogous to around 7.0 on the Richter scale. I repeat, the containment vessels appear to have withstood a magnitude 9.0 (the Japanese seismic authorities have upgraded their estimate) earthquake in a place where such an earthquake had NEVER happened before. That's a hallmark of good design. No, it is a hallmark of GREAT design.

All designs for any structure and control system are based on the concept of acceptable risk. We do this all the time. From automobiles to refineries, we base our designs on the level of risk that is acceptable to the corporation. Sometimes we even do actuarial calculations as part of the risk assessment. We know how many people could be injured or die, and we weigh that against the cost of making the plant more robust. 

The ONLY industry we do NOT allow to do this is the nuclear power plant industry. We insist that THEY design to the maximum possible projectable risk (doomsday scenarios).

That's why chemical plants and refineries kill over 100 people every year, and nuclear plants don't. You've all pointed to some things that, in hindsight, seem to be no-brainers. But I submit that they're not.

Put yourselves in the place of the designers of the reactor controls, structure and containment in the 1970s and 80s when these reactors were built. If the area had NEVER had an earthquake of this magnitude, with a tsunami of the magnitude that hit the area, would YOU have designed it to survive higher than a 7.0 quake? Followed by an enormous tidal wave? Would your employer allow you to do that? I think, if we are honest, we'd all answer no.

And if we applied the same requirements of design that we insist the nuclear plant engineers follow to the, oh, say, automobile industry, every car would cost $25 million or so. Each.

If we call this accident a design failure, we are doing the same thing as categorizing as a design failure the following scenario. A soldier wearing kevlar body armor that is designed to stop handgun and normal non-military rifle or shotgun fire gets hit by a .338 Lapua sniper round. It knocks him to the ground, and while it does not penetrate the kevlar vest because the vest was somewhat overdesigned, the transference of force breaks the soldier's entire rib cage. So the soldier is lying on the ground, trying to breathe, and an enemy runs up and brains him with a 20 lb. maul.

But the media pundits and some soi-disant experts continue to say that it is all a design failure of the vest.

There is a reason we call Acts of God by that name.

And please note, containment designs and nuclear plant equipment and controls designs have learned a lot since these units were designed and built. There have been a very small number of accidents in nuclear power stations that have had any impact at all on the public at large. The press coverage they've received is far out of proportion to the seriousness of the problem, and the coverage is truly poorly informed.

Dr. Josef Oehmen, a research scientist at MIT posted on March 12, "I have been reading every news release on the incident since the earthquake. There has not been one single (!) report that was accurate and free of errors (and part of that is also a weakness in the Japanese crisis communication). By 'not free of errors' I do not refer to tendentious anti-nuclear journalism-- that is quite normal these days. By 'not free of errors' I mean blatant errors regarding physics and natural law, as well a gross misinterpretation of facts, due to an obvious lack of fundamental and basic understanding of the way nuclear reactors are built and operated. I have read a 3 page report on CNN where every single paragraph contained an error."

Now, let's flip what I said about nuclear plant design quality on its head. What would happen if we required chemical plants, sugar mills, other petrochemical plants and even fossil power plants to meet the same standards of design and care that we require the nuclear industy to do? Why, we might stop killing 100 or more individuals in preventable process accidents every year.

Now one last comment. Please contribute to the massive amount of money needed to restore Japan to its pre-quake state. Pick your charity, and give.

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  • <p>Great article, Walt. </p>

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  • <p> Very interesting post, Walt and helps put many things into perspective - especially the differences between nuclear plant design and other chemical plants.  I find it incredulous that many process plants (insert name here) claim safety is #1 but do not really plan for 100% safety. While I understand the cost of doing so may be prohibitive, but it also minimizes the cost of losing lives as well.  We hear every week about some plant explosion or mishap, and whether it's one person or 20, it's too many. </p> <p> You also validated some of my concerns about the level of accuracy we are receiving in media circles.  I've been wondering how many of these reporters in Japan covering the nuclear plant explosion really understand the infrastructure of a nuclear plant or... how capable are they to reflect back what they are hearing? I'm not saying they're stupid, but what's music to your ears Walt, falls on deaf ears to others not plugged in or have the background of what you know.   </p> <p> If possible, please continue to help translate what's happening out in these nuclear plants as we go along.  The reports i'm hearing are disaster, melt downs, radiation exposure...all real threats in my book, but perhaps shedding some light on the situation will help keep nuclear fears in check.  Thanks for the reality check. </p>

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  • <p>the only other media article that came close was early coverage on RT.com, then they got sensational </p>

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  • <p> Sensibility like this is sorely lacking among those who call themselves "Journalists."  As with Three Mile Island, this makes for a wonderful headline, but when you go back and look more dispassionately, one wonders what all the fuss was about. </p>

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