What Happens when “The Unthinkable” Occurs?

Two weeks from Wednesday will mark the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  It seems like so long ago that the oil rig exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico causing the sea-floor oil well to spew crude into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly five months.  During that time, even though BP, Trans Ocean and the other companies that ran the platform had assured regulators that their safety measures would render impossible the events that we saw transpiring, even though those companies had plans and contingencies for such an unthinkable disaster, it became painfully clear that when the unthinkable happened, no one had any idea what to do.  We became familiar with terms like “junk shot” and “top kill” as the responders tried various methods of capping the well.

Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s deja vu all over again, but the rather than an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, the problem is with a nuclear power plant in Japan. 

Before proceeding with this parallel analysis, I want to point out a major difference.  The Trans-Ocean/BP disaster was entirely man made.  There had been problems on the Deepwater Horizon and workers, 11 of whom died in the explosion, were concerned about safety but feared reprisals for speaking up.  The disaster was preventable.

The Japanese, in dealing with the Fukushima Daichi plant have an excuse.  By any standard, a magnitude 9 earthquake is a monster.  The quake and Tsunami of March 11 are real problems that have caused the plant to have trouble.  People are giving their lives in horrific circumstances to try and bring the plant under control.  I can only salute that.

The problem is that even though things have stopped exploding, the problems continue and are expected to for months.  One thing is clear in reading this article.  TEPCO and Japanese government, as well as the IAEA are in uncharted territory.  That unthinkable situation that should not have happened has happened.  The contingencies that were never supposed to come into play have been tried and failed and the people trying to control the plant are having to get creative.  They even tried a junk shot made up of a polymer like that used in diapers mixed with sawdust and shredded newspaper to try and stop a leak of radioactive water into the Pacific. They’re using bath salts to keep track of the water that’s escaped.

The Japanese are the best at this.  They are the best at preparing for earthquakes.  They have top notch engineers.  And yet, they have failed. As with the Deepwater Horizon, the unthinkable happened at Fukushima and whatever contingencies were in place have proven ineffective. 

Why bring this up now? I bring it up because it needs to get into our national energy debate.  We need to find ways of powering our society that do not threaten to destroy our society.  When someone comes up with a proposal to expand drilling or allow nuclear plants to be built, they need to be able to contemplate the worst case scenario and show precisely how such a challenge would be met.  If they can’t provide that level of planning, they should not be allowed to proceed.

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About Andrew

I'm a Christian, American, liberal, geeky, thoughtful, Northwest-transplanted Angeleno husband, father, and pundit who writes about anything he can think of.
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