Lessons from Deepwater Horizon and Fukushima
In place of safety nets
Don’t assume disasters won’t happen at the frontiers of technology—presume they will
Apr 20th 2011 | from the print edition
TECHNOLOGY does not inflate like a balloon, expanding human power over nature evenly in all directions and at all scales. It grows like a sea urchin: long spines of ability radiate out towards specific needs and desires. Some of those spines now reach dizzying distances, allowing what would once have been impossible tasks; coaxing kilowatt hours by the million from the inner workings of atoms, or driving tiny oil pipes miles through the crust of the Earth. But the spines are brittle, and they stand alone.
When one breaks—as happened on board the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago (see article), or at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan last month—there is no ameliorative technology on a par with that which has failed. Instead there is floundering; there is improvisation; and there is vast damage. What was a continuous, miraculous conduit from the depths of the Earth or the heart of the atom becomes a noxious, tangled and inaccessible mess about which, for months, nothing can be done.
There is no way to fill in the space between the spines so that they are proof against catastrophe, or easily fixable at any point of failure. But there are rules that can make it easier to cope with the failures of such brittle technologies.
The first is that the firms involved have to accept that even if things seem safe and sure in day-to-day operations, disasters still happen. For years before Deepwater Horizon the oil industry planned on the basis that the blowout preventers on top of wells would live up to their name. The nuclear industry routinely tells itself that partial meltdowns such as that at Fukushima are less likely than the record shows them to be.
The second rule is to develop at least some broadly applicable technologies for repair and remediation before they are needed. The oil firms in the Gulf of Mexico are putting together a $1 billion system to cap leaking wells which could quite plausibly have been developed two years ago, or even five. Fukushima and other nuclear plants seem oddly lacking in robotic access to places where workers cannot or should not go. Such aids won’t always work; but they will sometimes.
For the other times when you have to improvise, invoke rule three: situational awareness is invaluable. Steven Chu, America’s energy secretary, was reportedly shocked to find that the only source of information from the Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer was a single gauge. So he should have been. Sensor systems for getting information out of containment vessels, off sea floors and from all sorts of other out-of-the-way places should be deployed widely and in redundant ways. They should also be kept independent of the related systems used for control; you want them to work even if—especially if—the control system does not.
Make the case
Getting companies to follow these rules is the business of regulators, which can cause problems of its own. Companies can and will kick back against regulation that simply forces ever more onerous, expensive, open-ended duties onto them, and working out when such duties are justified and when they are not is hard. One solution to the problem of ever-growing requirements is “safety case” regulation: rather than demand that companies simply meet a predefined standard of safety, have them make a reasoned case that their actions are safe under all plausible scenarios, and put that case to the test.
A safety-case approach is widely seen as having helped the North Sea avoid more accidents like Piper Alpha, a rig explosion in 1988 that claimed 167 lives. It may not be appropriate to all technologies or locations. It requires moderately long-term relationships and regulatory expertise, and fails in situations, such as banking, where systemic risk means that the company being regulated will not be the only victim of failure. But at its best it can combine the benefits of being both confrontational and collegiate. Better still if the companies make not just a case for safety, but also a case for their ability to react when things do go wrong, and they find themselves in the uncharted space between the spines of well developed technology. It really does help to think about the unthinkable.
from the print edition | Leaders