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Not with a Bang…. The Japanese Nuclear Disaster

Too late to run a formal risk assessment on the dismal situation at the Japanese nuclear plants.  Obviously, the switch has been turned to ‘survival mode’.  But risk decisions are still being made, individually and collectively.

The bravery of the nuclear plant workers who stayed to continue at their posts and try to avert a full catastrophe reflects 50 individual risk decisions  by people risking their own lives for the elusive greater good. 

One of the U.S. TV morning shows talked about the risk calculation being made about whether to continue to build nuclear plants when “stuff happens”, as this double play of earthquake-tsunami proves.  

The assets which are generated by nuclear energy are large amounts of relatively ‘clean’ energy.  The risks have been underwritten by governments which support the growth of these plants by sharing the risk with the electric companies to encourage them to build. 

The threats to these plants have been addressed dozens of times and right at the top of the list are both international and domestic terrorists; followed by natural disasters, including earthquakes, tsunamis (we added tsunamis into our threat matrix in 2002),  tornados and hurricanes; followed by sabotage by insiders who work in the plants themselves. 

Personnel working in these plants are heavily investigated and also undergo continuing scrutiny of their lifestyles, checking accounts, etc., because of the sensitivity of the work they do.    US National Public Radio (NPR) reported yesterday that U.S. nuke plants have a failure rate of 40% on security inspections – and that’s when they get TWO WEEKS ADVANCE NOTICE of the inspections.  What if they got no notice?  What kind of results would we see?

One of the major risk correlations in formal risk assessment is the Threat-Asset ratio, which means, for example,  don’t build a nuclear plant on an earthquake fault line.  If the threat is too high, it increases the probability that the asset (the plant) will be compromised and could experience a loss, based on a threat occurring.

The standard list of controls are also analyzed and these can range from specific security controls to having multiple backup power sources (that DO NOT DEPEND on electricity).    Obviously, when this control was no longer viable due to the natural disasters, that’s when things started to go rapidly downhill.

Without electricity to keep the cooling activities running, you have to start to look at the possible losses that could result from the event.   The nuclear power equation is especially worrisome because radioactivity is not only instantly fatal, but it can be blown around, and it is FOREVER.  It doesn’t burn itself out in a few days like a fire, or dry up like a flood when the sun comes out.

The risks/potential losses can include:

Loss of life of plant employees
Loss of life of the surrounding population – to 5 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles, farther?
Loss of the electricity that cannot be generated and what that means to a country.
Loss of the plant itself – as a replacement cost of billions of dollars.

The problem with the nuclear power risk equation is that the biggest potential loss is the contamination of one, two or multiple countries, possible permanent radioactive contamination of the ocean, or, in a very worst case, loss of the planet.

As this latest disaster proves, the potential loss is so high, that even twenty years of extra electricity don’t seem worth the risk, especially if the calculation includes plants built-in areas susceptible to the list of potential threats exactly like earthquakes.

We’re running a set of scenarios that will continue to evolve as the situation stabilizes or possibly gets even worse. It seems that Mother Nature is controlling events now.