Thursday, June 30, 2011

Japan’s Nuclear “Safety Myth”

Engineers of complex technology should be studying the Fukushima nuclear disaster for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons has to do with belief. According to a New York Times article (6/25/11) the Japanese utilities, government and citizens all succumbed to the mass delusion that their nuclear plants were “absolutely safe”—this phrase is repeated so many times in the article that you get a strong sense of the propaganda that must have been disseminated in Japan for years.

The article traces the nuclear “safety myth” to Japan’s post-World War II restructuring. Japan did not have oil or other natural resources, a big part of why it was defeated. Despite being hit by two atom bombs, nuclear power must have looked like a free lunch card, assurance that they would not slip backwards into the old world development status of primitive Pacific island cultures. But if nuclear power was the only way Japan would survive as any kind of respectable world power, then, by god, nuclear power would just have to be safe. Too much national identity was at stake for it not to be. And once the island nation was peppered with 54 plants, to paraphrase Dick Cheney, nuclear safety was not up for negotiation.

This mindset led to a rash of irrational, if very familiar, bad decisions. The (Japanese!) utility did not invest in radiation-capable robots. At Fukushima, when workers needed to pump water to cool the reactor, the pump they used had to be imported from China. The plants have robots of course, but they are positioned in the visitor centers and on tours for the education and amusement of tourists. If you go on one of these tours you will also see many friendly anime cartoons extolling the virtue and safety of nuclear. You will be guided by an attractive, childbearing-age female tour guide, the likes of whom were hired at Japan plants after Chernobyl to specifically ally the fears of mothers and prospective mothers worried about radiation birth defects.

A misleading PR offensive is one thing, but to willfully neglect to amass safety technology and tools that will be needed in the event of an emergency strikes me as a new page in the history of engineering disasters.

The “Safety Myth”, like all myths, was accepted on pure faith. Therefore, any emergency contingency plan directly challenged that faith. Since the faith stood on a shaky foundation to being with, everyone who clung to it was overly defensive about it. Any thought of the nuclear plans not being “absolutely safe” needed to be ignored at all cost.

I can relate. I used to feel the same way about my old Subaru Legacy, especially after she passed the 225,000 mile mark. What’s that grinding sound? What’s that odd smell? Nothing, absolutely nothing!

The problem is that the accident always hits eventually. With complex interactions between components that are tightly coupled (see Figure 9.1, Normal Accidents, Charles Perrow, or below) you will have an accident within the system. It is mathematically guaranteed to happen. The accident might not blow the plant to kingdom kum, but there is no guarantee that it won’t either.

Engineers are familiar—or should be—with the idea that redundant safety measures don’t necessarily make the system safer. They add more layers of complexity, give something else an opportunity to break down, all while lulling the human operators into a false sense of security. The Japanese appeared to have skipped this step. They created their false security without paying for the safety systems. Belief is a powerful way to circumvent the laws of physics, until it’s not.

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