Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why We Drill

An interim report on the emergency response at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant following the March 11, 2011 9.0 earthquake and tsunami paints a picture of poor human performance and emergency response conduct in the hours following the twin disaster that left four damaged reactors at the facility and spread radiation across a fair amount of the neighboring Japanese countryside.

Dan Yurman at Idaho Samizdat offers a good summary of highlights from the 507-page report here. A full summary can be read here.

As I read it, I’m reminded why we drill, drill, drill, and drill in emergency response at the facility where I work. (Where I work is a waste dump, we have no reactors but are still cautious about safety and emergency response.) We see time and again as we drill where our human performance falls short and where we need to improve our ability to respond under pressure and in a timely fashion. We also see with each drill where our emergency planning may be lax and how we can fix it.

Now, I can’t imagine trying to respond to a disaster of the Fukishima-Daiichi magnitude, with an earthquake, tsunami and power outage all occurring near simultaneously. But I can also clearly see the necessity for planning a response to such events, given Japan’s proclivity to earthquakes, the potential for tsunami and the resultant consequence of having backup electrical generation systems washed away in a tsunami. Simply imagining that a disaster won’t happen doesn’t mean it won’t – you have to prepare for the worst. So the next time we have an outlandish emergency response scenario – say a plane crashing into one of our waste retrieval tents – I’ll remember this and think, well, sure it’s far beyond the worst we expect. Maybe that’s a good thing we’re drilling on that.

My thinking resembles one of the conclusions from the summary report:
It cannot be denied that viewpoint of looking at a whole picture of an accident was not adequately reflected in nuclear disaster prevention program in the past. The nuclear disaster prevention program had serious shortfalls. It cannot be excused that the nuclear accidents could not be managed because of an extraordinary situation that the tsunamis exceeded the assumption.
The Investigation Committee is convinced of the need of paradigm shift in the basic principles of disaster prevention programs for such a huge system, which may result in serious damage once it has an accident.

(The language is a little stilted; I’m assuming it’s just been translated poorly from Japanese to English, but the message gets through.)

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