Lessons to be learned from Fukushima
Importance of Managing Black Swan Events
One significant error that can lead large infrastructure projects astray is the neglect of so-called Black Swan Events. These occurrences are rare, unpredictable, and highly impactful. They deviate significantly from the expected norms. Competent engineering managers must always account for black swan events as they form the foundation of engineering risk management.
For instance, proponents of nuclear energy often pose questions to the solar and wind industry, asking, "What if the wind doesn't blow, and the backup LNG gas simultaneously freezes in the pipeline? How do you prevent a grid collapse during this time?
When they are asking these questions, they are alluding to potential black swan events that might have a 1 in 1000, 1 in 10 000 or 1 in a million risk. A risk with an infinitesimally low probability, but a infinite high cost is called a black swan event.
However, it is equally crucial for the nuclear industry to introspect and assess its preparedness for equally, if not more severe, black swan events such as the Fukushima Daiichi Accident.
Consider for example a scenario where a tsunami or earthquake strikes a nuclear power plant that is located near a civilian population.
How would you manage public opinion and risk perception?
Which private investor is going to insure such an accident?
Are the systems prepared to withstand such an occurrence?
As first year calculus students would know, the product of zero and infinity is indeterminate, and therefore the cost of such an event can be anything between zero and infinity. Fukushima was a black swan event, it was rare, predictable, but unfortunately not taken seriously.
In reflecting on this event I recently read an article by the MIT Economist Paul Joskow1 titled “The Future of Nuclear Power After Fukushima". He wrote the article in 2012, 1 year after the accident and concluded that despite expected setbacks the Nuclear Industry isn’t going to die in the long term from the fallout. His argument was based on the response that various countries took, and notably that the focus on life extensions would allow for the industry to implement the lessons learned from Fukushima.
What I appreciate about Joskow is that his analysis is consistently empirical, and he strives to maintain a neutral stance when offering both criticism and praise to the nuclear industry. Peer Reviewed literature of this nature is important, because it can serve as a basis to those working in the nuclear industry and in particular on the lessons to learn. Engineers should especially learn from the mistakes of others.
But what exactly occured at Fukushima?
Without going too much into the detail, the Tsunami arrived at the site at a height of 49 feet (15m) and the Seawall was only 33 feet (10m) high. Had the wall been between 6-10m higher, then it is plausible that the Fukushima disaster might not have been so severe.
There are other issues involved as well such as the fact that some of the diesel generators were located in the basement floors, and therefore they tripped once the Tsunami hit. But the reality of fukushima was that it was a predictable event. The company responsible, Tepco, had the knowledge that a Tsunami would occur, but yet they ignored the black swan event.
TEPCO conducted a new safety assessment of Fukushima Daiichi but used 5.7 meters as the maximum possible height of a tsunami, against the published recommendations of some of its own scientists. TEPCO concluded in November 2010 that they had “assessed and confirmed the safety of the nuclear plants,” presenting its findings at a nuclear engineering conference in Japan.
“The problem is that all of TEPCO’s studies were done internally; there were no safety factors built in the analysis, which anyway lacked context. Globally, we lack standards for the tsunami-specific training and certification of engineers and scientists who perform hazard studies, and for the regulators who review them, who can in principle ensure that changes be made, if needed,” Synolakis said. “How many licensing boards have tsunami-specific questions when granting professional accreditation?”
The article by Joskow was written in 2011 and it has an important lesson for anyone who is interested in the large expansion of nuclear power:
Rather be Cautious and don’t ignore extreme risks.
Extreme risks should not be ignored simply because they are too “improbable”. Rather plan the project properly than rush it, or it will lead to more costly mistakes in the future2.
The Fear of Radiation
My heretical views on Fukushima is that I still believe that it is blown out of proportion, simply because I reject the Linear No Threshold Model of Radiation on the basis of the evidence, and the work of Dr. Edward Calabrese in particular who exposed its introduction as an obvious fraud. LNT assumes that all dosages of radiation is dangerous. This claim stands in contrasts to what we know from the three generation long term medical data of the atomic bomb survivors.
It is essential to emphasize that instances like Fukushima have not resulted in casualties from the radiation fallout. Nobody has died from radiation! They rather died from the earthquake, the tsunami and the fear during the evacuation.
Below are the following lessons that I draw from Fukushima.
The focus on nuclear safety should shift towards constructive risk based assessment measures, such as addressing specific black swan events like the height of protective walls, to enhance safety protocols.
But equally, it is imperative to dispel irrational fears of radiation, ensuring that public reactions are grounded in accurate assessments of risk and prioritizing solutions over panic in the face of unlikely events.
Black Swan events should not be ignored, but if they do occur, we should equally so not scare the public to believe that the world is coming to an end. Radiation in low dosages not dangerous, but neither does that excuse Tepco for not building a high enough wall and moving the generators above ground.
Update: in response to this article,a Senior Nuclear Engineer for GEH, GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, gave me his opinion. The solution to Fukushima is far more straightforward. Don’t build it in a region with a high tsunami activity.
“Many articles read since 2011 have missed the great white elephant in the room: siting a nuclear power plant on a coastline susceptible to tsunami wave height exceedance is a very bad idea; the prefecture and regulator should not have approved the Fukushima Daiichi site during initial permitting process; especially given the known geographic history (locals would have pointed you to the grave markers higher up the slope). Siting a nuclear power plant along a coastline is a key 'fundamental' design consideration. The plant survived the earthquake; but not the tsunami, due to a simple siting design flaw. If the design basis event was 33 feet; the units should have been installed at 100 feet or greater. That is sound engineering judgement. I wish someone would state the obvious at some point.”
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I am a regular reader of Joskow work on energy, and notably his article that criticises the LCOE metric is a must read for anyone who is investing and working in the electricity sector and understanding the costs involved. My criticism of Joskow is that he doesn’t necessarily speak to the nature of the regulations and in particular the impact of Linear No Threshold assumptions on the costs and irrational public response.