|Dátum:||July 22, 2000 o 12:19:14|
|Subject:||RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH NEWS #747|
Controlling Technologies--Part 1
THE IMPORTANCE OF SURPRISES
The scientists who first split the atom, in 1942, were no doubt some of the smartest people in the world: Enrico Fermi, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, Neils Bohr, Glenn Seaborg, and dozens of others. For the next 50 years, nuclear technology served as a magnet for brainy people, attracting graduate students who were excited to work at the cutting edge of technology where research funds were nearly limitless. In the field of nuclear weapons, nuclear power or nuclear medicine, if you had a bright idea, you could probably find the funds to explore it, so smart people flocked into nuclear technology.
Despite all this brain power, in 60 short years nuclear technology has created an array of problems that now rank among the most difficult, dangerous and long-lived that the world has ever faced, and which grow larger each passing year. What went wrong?
This is an important question because -- despite all the problems it has already created -- the nuclear industry is redoubling its efforts to expand. [NY TIMES May 7, 2001, pg. A17] Furthermore, nuclear is not the most complex technology humans have set out to
master: biotechnology and the now-emerging nanotechnology are intrinsically much more complex. (Nanotechnology is the attempt to create molecule-sized machines, some of which can themselves create more molecule-sized machines.) If we are having trouble controlling nuclear technology, shouldn't we think twice before deploying new technologies that are far more complicated, much less understandable and therefore far less predictable?
What went wrong with nuclear? The people who gave us nuclear technology evidently didn't notice that our ability to control complex systems is limited by surprises that arise from three
sources: (1) technical misunderstanding of the underlying chemistry, physics, or biology; (2) an astonishing range of management lapses (including simple errors, unwillingness to confront the troublesome parts of a problem, a tendency to doze off on the job after a few uneventful years, and the human desire to hide and deny embarrassing mistakes); and (3) the shifting sands of politics and economic dislocations, including commercial competition.
The history of nuclear power tells us that these three kinds of surprises (technical, managerial, and political) set pretty narrow limits on the human capacity to control complex technologies. Nuclear technology has clearly exceeded our human capacity for control, while biotech and nanotech make nuclear seem simple and easy by comparison.
Where is the evidence that nuclear is uncontrollably complex? It's in the newspapers almost every week. Let's take a look.
** Because it operates 51 nuclear power plants to generate electricity, Japan justifiably ranks high among the high-tech nations. However, on Sept. 30, 1999, an atomic fuel plant in the town of Tokaimura, 87 miles northwest of Tokyo, spewed radioactivity into the air. At least 35 workers were exposed and 300,000 nearby residents were told to shut their windows and stay indoors. [NY TIMES October 1, 1999, pgs. A1, A10.] When the accident occurred, the Tokaimura plant was in its 17th year of commercial operation.
The accident began when workers poured 35 pounds of uranium -- instead of the usual 5 pounds -- into a tank containing nitric acid. (Management surprise.) The tank happened to be surrounded by a shell filled with water, which reflected neutrons back toward the uranium, thus promoting a chain reaction. (Technical
surprise.) There was an ominous blue flash of light as the 35 pounds of uranium "went critical," meaning a nuclear chain reaction had begun spewing deadly gamma rays and neutrons into the surrounding area.
Japanese nuclear safety officials had previously scrutinized the plant and concluded that an accidental chain reaction was impossible, so the plant had no emergency plan. (Management
surprise.) [NY TIMES Oct. 23, 1999, pg. A4.]
It took Japanese authorities 17 hours to bring the atomic reaction under control. The Tokyo Electric Power Company rushed 880 pounds of sodium borate to the plant to absorb radiation and quench the nuclear reaction, but they discovered they had no way of getting close enough to the chain reaction to dump the powder onto it. (Management surprise).
Japanese authorities requested help from the U.S. military stationed in Japan but were told those troops were not equipped to deal with nuclear accidents. (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES October 1, 1999, pgs. A1, A10.]
Workers finally brought the chain reaction under control by smashing a pipe connected to the water shell, letting the water drain out. [NY TIMES Oct. 23, 1999, pg. A4.]
The Japanese Government Nuclear Safety Commission immediately blamed the workers involved. One member of the Commission said, "If they had done their job as they were supposed to, there is no way something like this could have happened." [NY TIMES Oct. 1, 1999, pg. A10.]
However, a few days later it became apparent that the Government Nuclear Safety Commission had misunderstood the situation. (Management surprise.) The NEW YORK TIMES reported that, for years, the plant's managers had been pressuring workers to skip important safety steps, to increase productivity and improve competitiveness. One of the injured workers said he had routinely used procedural shortcuts following directions given in an illegally-drafted plant manual that allowed workers to speed up production. [NY TIMES Oct. 4, 1999, pg. A8.] For their part, plant managers continued to blame the workers' "lack of sufficient expertise," as if employee training were not a management responsibility. (Management surprise.) Plant managers refused to acknowledge that they had urged workers to speed up production, "But company officials have acknowledged that the plant had recently faced intense foreign competition," the NEW YORK TIMES reported. (Management surprise, political surprise.)
The most highly-irradiated worker in the September accident, Hisashi Ouchi, 35, died of his injuries December 22. The Japanese government had made heroic efforts to keep him alive, transfusing 10 pints of fresh blood into his body each day for several months before his death. Just as the government feared, his death catalyzed a citizen movement to oppose the expansion of nuclear power in Japan, and especially to stop the use of MOX, or "mixed oxide fuel." (Political surprise.) [NY TIMES Jan. 13, 2000, pg. A1.] MOX fuel combines plutonium with uranium into fuel for nuclear power plants, as a way of (1) avoiding the need for new uranium fuel; and (2) in some cases, reducing the world's supply of pure plutonium, 18 pounds of which can be used to make a crude but effective A-bomb. [NY TIMES November 12, 2001, pg. B1.]
Japan had been planning to purchase mixed oxide fuels (MOX) from a British plant known as Sellafield, an industrial complex on the edge of the Irish Sea employing 10,000 workers. Sellafield had begun operating a nuclear power plant in 1956, but the plant caught fire Oct. 10, 1957, exposing workers and nearby residents to excessive radioactivity. (Technical surprise.) In 1957, the British government denied anyone had been harmed but in 1983 the British National Radiological Protection Board estimated that the doses received by the public during the 1957 fire could cause hundreds of thyroid cancers. (Technical surprise, management
surprise.) The British government released its health report in 1988, 31 years after the fire, and some of the health data remain secret to this day. (Management surprise.)
Sellafield survived the disaster of 1957 and went on to expand its operation to include nuclear fuel reprocessing and nuclear waste management. In anticipation of a growing market for MOX fuels, Sellafield invested $480 million in a new fuel fabrication facility in 1999. Japan agreed to buy 1/3 of the plant's output.
Unfortunately, shortly after Sellafield shipped its first batch of MOX fuel to Japan, British authorities discovered that Sellafield workers had falsified inspection documents related to the fuel rods sent to Japan. (Management surprise.) A union representative blamed commercial competition: "Clearly there was commercial pressure to meet customers' demands," he said. (Political surprise.) [NY TIMES Apr. 20, 2000, pg. C4.]
In Japan, news of the falsified inspection documents created such an uproar that the fuel was rejected and shipped back to Sellafield. [NY TIMES Jan. 13, 2000, pg. A1.] Switzerland and Sweden then suspended shipments of spent fuel to Sellafield. (Political surprise.)
Germany, too, said it had received MOX fuels from Sellafield accompanied by falsified documents. Subsequently Germany raised concerns about "irregularities" in MOX fuel manufactured at La Hague in France, engulfing the entire MOX fuel industry in scandal and controversy. (Management surprise, political
surprise.) [NY TIMES April 20, 2000, pg. C1.] Two months later, Germany announced that it would phase out and shut down all 19 of its nuclear power plants. (Political surprise.) [NY TIMES June 16, 2000, pg. A6.]
But Sellafield's troubles did not stop there. Two months after the revelation of falsified documents, British government inspectors reported "systematic management failures" at the Sellafield complex and found fault with Sellafield's entire "safety culture." (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES April 20, 2000, pg. C4.] Shortly after this embarrassing revelation, British authorities announced that "a saboteur had severed cables controlling robotic operations in a radioactive area of the installation." (Management surprise.) [NY TIMES March 27, 2000, pg. A8.] Ireland and Denmark then began an international campaign to have the Sellafield plant closed for good. (Political
With its MOX fuel investment in serious trouble and its reputation in tatters, Sellafield announced that recent events had forced it to increase the price for cleaning up the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, USA, one of the most contaminated places on Earth, where DuPont, Westinghouse and other private firms made plutonium for weapons between 1943 and 1987. In October 1998, Sellafield has offered to solidify -- for a fee of $6.6 billion\- -- 54 million gallons of DuPont's and Westinghouse's discarded radioactive liquids, sludges and salts held in 177 tanks at Hanford. But 18 months later, in late April 2000, Sellafield management said the Hanford cleanup would now cost U.S. taxpayers $15.2 billion. The U.S. Department of Energy balked, canceled the contract with Sellafield and declared its attempt to "privatize" the Hanford cleanup a failure. Evidently, the private sector can affordably create one of the world's largest radioactive stews but cannot affordably clean it up. (Management surprise, political surprise.) [NY TIMES April 27, 2000, pg. C4; NY TIMES May 9, 2000, pg. C4.]
The Hanford cleanup is itself a technical frontier. Of the 177 waste tanks at Hanford, 149 are made of a single shell of steel. So far, 68 tanks have leaked and "all the single-shell tanks are expected to leak eventually," the NY TIMES reported March 23, 1998, pg. A10. (Technical surprise.)
For 50 years, private-sector and governmental managers at the Hanford Reservation steadfastly maintained that leaks of radioactive liquids were inconsequential because the soil would bind the radioactive particles tightly, preventing them from moving into the Columbia River. However, in 1997 officials announced that they had been wrong and that leaked wastes had already entered the river. (Technical surprise.) [NY TIMES Oct. 11, 1997, pg. A7.]
Of the 54 million gallons of wastes abandoned by DuPont and Westinghouse at Hanford, so far at least 900,000 gallons have escaped into the soil on their way to the river. No one has any idea how to retrieve them. (Technical surprise.) [NY TIMES Mar. 23, 1998, pg. A10.]
To be continued.
 http://www.foresight.org/NanoRev/FIFAQ1.html#FAQ1 and http://www.nanozine.com/WHATNANO.HTM#whatsa
 Jean McSorley, LIVING IN THE SHADOW (London: Pan Books, 1990; ISBN 0330313312).