The worst-case scenario seems impossible until it happens.
Japan is facing that reality as it grapples with a nuclear crisis in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami.
The United States faced a worst-case scenario in oil drilling last year with BP’s Macondo well blowout, where a series of operator missteps, technological breakdowns, and lack of a containment system triggered the largest spill in U.S. history in one of the most economically and environmentally fertile areas of the country.
“So often the risk is that people are able to imagine the worst-case scenario but don’t think it could happen,” Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, told National Journal Daily on Monday.
Energy’s value clearly outweighs its potential to cause a catastrophe. The examples endure: the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear accidents; mining disasters in the United States, China, and Chile last year; and the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.
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No form of energy production seems completely safe, and producers and governments must consider the tradeoffs. While they can hedge against disasters, they are often unavoidable or inevitable because of decisions made on economic and safety tradeoffs.
Japan’s three endangered nuclear reactors were built to withstand dangerous scenarios but likely not the double whammy of an earthquake and tsunami, according to David Lochbaum, who has worked on U.S. nuclear plants for almost 20 years, including three that are similar to General Electric plants in Japan.
“Reactors are basically able to withstand an earthquake and are able to withstand tsunamis, but they’re not equipped to handle both,” said Lochbaum, who directs the Union of Concerned Scientists Nuclear Safety Program and has trained staff for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “That is just something we didn’t contemplate when designing them. That is something we’ll have to revisit.”
“You can design a reactor to be bulletproof, but no one will want to pay for it,” Lochbaum said. “It’s the tradeoff between building something you can make money at and making something that’s sufficiently safe for the public.”
For instance, it’s expensive to turn off an aging nuclear reactor that provides electricity to millions of people out of fear that a major earthquake and a tsunami would hit almost simultaneously.
“Would it have been worth it to shut it down and deprive society? In retrospect the answer is always yes,” said Kevin Book, managing director at ClearView Energy Partners.
Everything changes once the worst case unfolds.
“It’s a funny thing, the economics tend to change after a disaster, and a lot more tends to be possible,” said William Reilly, who President Obama tapped to lead his oil spill commission.
The new possibilities can include transformations of some bad actors.
“Some of the safest companies and some of the best regulatory systems were neither safe nor consistent before their catastrophe,” said Reilly, who was EPA administrator under President George H.W. Bush.
No one pays attention to safety technology until it breaks. “History never gives credit to the disasters that were averted because people did take prolific action,” Yergin said.
The rarity of Japan’s nuclear crisis should not go overlooked.
“We never see the successes in front of us,” Book said. “A 40-year-old reactor getting critically damaged by a once-in-a-century earthquake is a pretty rare occurrence.”
It’s what you would call a worst-case scenario that’s (almost) impossible.
This article appears in the March 15, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.