Sunday, March 20, 2011

Emergency Response Saga in the Japan Nuclear Plant and BP Oil Spill

With the almost out-of-control catastrophic problem, miscalculated emergency response plan with ineffective rescue actions, these could describe the current situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant but also par well and describes what had happened to the Deepwater Horizon rig that caused the major oil spill in the Gulf.

Seems like these events reminded all of us the crucial management involving such complex technology is not just wholly dependent on well-thought crisis response plans. Of course, such reactive plans will have to adapt to actual events and without a robust plan it won't work. It is lesson of vital importance to public or private organizations and the government in a host of technological activities that maybe potentially dangerous to all stakeholders. Not to forget our PM Lee just reminded singaporeans should a major act of terrorism involving nuclear, chemical, biological or cyber weapons occurs, either in private facilities or public spaces and that the nation should never let their guards down any minute.
Many of the problems relating to crisis response in Japan or with the Gulf spill still freshly in mind, shows how easy it is to talk the talk on these matters and how difficult to actually execute them correctly but with probability of high consequential results.

Although the Japanese nuclear event caused by the 9.0 richter quake is only a week old and information is fragmentary, it has a resemblance in a number of dimensions to the Gulf spill which occurred almost a year ago and has since been carefully analyzed (for example, the Report of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, January 11, 2011):

Response Plan  -

Neither the Gulf spill nor the problems at the Japan nuclear plants were unthinkable. The possibility of a well blow-out was explicitly addressed by systems, processes and technology. Planning for the possibility of a severe earthquake and a subsequent tsunami were part of Japanese reliance on nuclear power. Yet, neither BP and the U.S. government nor Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) and the Japanese government had response plans which addressed the sequence of events that, though remote, were arguably foreseeable in environments where dangerous technology was located and which, in particular, addressed the additional issues outlined below.

Who is Responsibe and for what ??? 

The american government initially left the crisis management and response to BP. However the spill went uncontrollable and blown to a national issue, which later involved governmental direction and accountability.
In Japan, although the government has taken the lead on many aspects of the post-earthquake/tsunami crisis, there has been confusion about who is in charge at the nuclear plants. Where is the central government? Where is the nuclear regulator? As Michiyo Nakamoto pointed out in the Financial Times, the government inititially left many decisions to TEPCO (before forming a "joint" task force) , and then criticized the utility even though this is now a national emergency requiring the exercise of national authority and requiring military helicopters to assist in dumping huge amount of seawater to cool down the plant.

Inaccurate and misleading information ??? 

A host of factual questions were raised by Gulf Spill: How much oil was flowing? How could the flow be stopped? Where was the oil going (surface/sub-surface)? How could it be contained or removed? How could damage to environment/people/property be eliminated or mitigated? 
A similar set of problems bedevils Japan. There are critical questions about condition of the reactors; possible physical and chemical reactions in the reactor areas; actions being take to reduce those risks; radiation releases; health implications. Yet there has been a large number of voices from the government and industry which has left Japanese citizens and the world confused. Again, a single central authority needs to have seized control of the information flow and been as candid and explicit as possible about what is known, what isn't known, and how information gaps are being filled.

Thought and Decision-Making of what is best ???

There was substantial confusion for weeks after the Gulf spill about whether the company or different parts of government were making decisions. The decision-making processes on a host of crisis response issues (see preceding paragraph) were not set out clearly for the public — including comparision of options — and led to a perception of drift and lack of direction during a major national catastrophe.

A similar concern appears to apply in Japan, where opaqueness prevails about who is making decisions about what options, with what parties at the table, and with which other parties advising (from around the world). This, too, contributes to the growing sense that the public and private authorities do not have the situation in hand (and, in fact, may be losing control).

All Resources and implementation ???

In the Gulf, there were also serious issues about which private and public sector actors would implement which decisions — and about what resources were necessary. Indeed, just the lack of resource preparedness increased the severity of problems of containment and damage mitigation.

In Japan, it is very hard to tell at the moment who is responsible for carrying out which decisions at the nuclear plants as there has been shifting of employees around the plant (leaving, at the moment, 50 heroic technicians to deal with four reactors in stress and two more at risk at the Fukushima Daiichi plant) — and it is far from clear if regulatory experts (from inside or outside Japan) are on or near the site at all.

These are issues which every company with potentially catastrophic processes, products, or plants needs to answer with a special team of "worst case" analysts. Even in our KOM business of building drilling oil rigs with huge number of labour and many heavy machineries running on power generated from the diesel engines on board the rig, during testing of any marine or drilling system, there is need of prudent planning and close co-ordination among the experience engineers, commissioning staff, production labour, etc, before each of the system is ready for test and trial. There is no margin for error at all.

Practice makes perfect ??

Many would say that in emergency response and crisis management, without practice, without simulations, these response plans merely gather dust and are not effective when any of the least expected event occurs. In the military, war games can be a vital tool for learning how to respond to crisis situations. We need a "war game" mentality in the private sector to address the severe conceptual and operational problems in emergency response and managing crisis which the Gulf Spill and the Japan nuclear events so starkly have illustrated and shown to us. Many of lessons to be learnt by reading through the happenings and applicable even in our KOM kind of industry building oil drilling rigs. We are not free from trouble either and should not drop our guards, the seniors need to watch over the juniors to avoid human mistake which may affect the safety record.

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