Much of the analysis of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, both the tick-tock of events at the plant itself and the re-evaluation of nuclear reactor safety and response plans here in the U.S., has treated the subject as if it was an isolated incident. This ignores the triggering event, a 9.0 earthquake and resulting monster tsunami, along with the true utter death and destruction that resulted as opposed to the ongoing radiological situation that has yet to kill one person (the brave people working to get the situation under control have likely been exposed to high enough doses of radiation to increase their chances of developing cancer, but at this point outside the plant it likely will be difficult to identify any increased cancer rates).
This is not generally the best of ideas, either for understanding decisions made by the utility that owns and operates the Fukushima plant and Japanese authorities or in analyzing our own safety efforts and crisis response plans (never mind the fact I’ve seen significantly more concern raised about nuclear safety than questions about our own ability to deal with an event that kills tens of thousands and displaces hundreds of thousands of people). That said…I’m about to commit the same mistake, because like in physics it is sometimes easier to treat a real physical object like a car as if it were a pure geometrical shape (such as a sphere) just because it makes the math easier. In other words, sometimes important insights can still be gained by simplifying a situation.
In this case, I’m thinking about the similarities between the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and spill and the ongoing troubles at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Both are technical disasters that impact people and the environment with possible long-term effects to which there has been a confused response. In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, former DHS assistant secretary Juliette Kayyem reflects on her experiences in the Gulf:
In hindsight, it’s clear to me that there were two different responses to the spill — one political, one operational. Despite some fits and starts, the operational response largely worked. But it was the political response that garnered so much attention, and seemed so disconnected from what was going on day-to-day operationally.
The operational response, led by Thad Allen, occurred in the field. Countless Coast Guard officials, environmental cleanup crews, BP engineers, and state and local first responders focused on closing the well; used 1.8 million gallons of dispersants on the surface and sea bottom; burned oil when it surfaced; protected marshlands with protective boom; skimmed oil if it was near shore; and cleaned up tar balls when oil hit the shore.
Yet, the whole time, we were playing by a rulebook that no one could admit we were playing by. This was true not just for the White House, but for the governors and local leaders as well.
Even putting aside BP’s public-relations fiascos — former CEO Tony Hayward wasn’t the only one who wanted his life back — the notion that the US government would stand hand in hand singing “Kumbaya” with BP as we worked together to fight the oncoming oil was absurd. Thus, Thad Allen would become the voice and leader of the response, BP would be kicked off the podium (literally: their daily press briefings with the Coast Guard were canceled)
Not one of the Gulf governors — all of them Republican, at least two potentially running against President Obama in 2012 — would accept that his own experts had signed off on plans that, essentially, they no longer liked in the harsh light of day.
In a democracy, any disaster is inherently political. This isn’t a criticism. The administration did, in my view, what any compassionate and concerned administration ought to do; the governors would similarly defend themselves. And maybe first responders are too quick to criticize elected officials for involving themselves in major disasters; leadership is what we elect them for. They can assign blame, demand resources, and channel popular outrage in a way a by-the-book field response cannot.
On the other side of the Pacific, the story sounds eerily similar. The Wall Street Journal has been carrying out some of the best reporting on the management of the Fukushima crisis:
Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which oversees the country’s top nuclear regulator, said Friday said it will run Tepco’s main daily plant-status briefing, held each evening, though the company will conduct some others on its own.
Tepco came under another indirect attack Friday, as the governor of Fukushima prefecture, or state, vowed he would oppose any efforts to reopen parts of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, as well as a neighboring Tepco-run plant, until he was assured of their safety. While he has limited ability to block any reopening, his comments underscore the rising local opposition to nuclear power in Japan.
Tokyo’s intervention in Tepco’s public-relations arm came after several briefings that sowed confusion, with Tepco issuing statements on radiation levels that it later rescinded or revised, or that appeared to catch Tokyo by surprise at briefings often held at around the same time of day.
The move deepens the government’s involvement in Tepco. After the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that led to dangerous reactor overheating at the plant, Prime Minister Naoto Kan ordered advisers to set up a command center in Tepco’s offices. The government has since moved to quash speculation, amid questions over Tepco’s ability to shoulder potential liabilities over the disaster, that it would nationalize the company.
“Under the current configuration, it is not clear who is calling the shots and who is taking responsibility,”
To bring it all together, Ben Heineman, former General Counsel of GE (among his many professional accomplishments), highlighted the similarities between the two incidents in a Harvard Business Review piece:
A potentially catastrophic technological problem, an incomplete crisis response plan, misleading early information, divided private and public authority, ineffective initial actions.
This could describe the current situation at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant and its six reactors. But, it also describes what happened after the April 20, 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.
These two unprecedented events are stark reminders that effective crisis management involving complex science and technology is wholly dependent on well-thought-out — and actively practiced — crisis response plans. Of course, such plans will have to adapt to actual events, but without a robust plan, “seat of the pants” crisis management won’t work.
Although the Japanese nuclear event is not yet a week old and information is impressionistic and fragmentary, it bears a striking resemblance in a number of dimensions to the Gulf spill
Response Plan. Neither the Gulf spill nor the problems at the Japan nuclear plants were unthinkable.
Public or Private Responsibility? The U.S. government initially left many dimensions of crisis management and response to BP. But, the Gulf spill was a national issue, which required governmental direction, responsibility 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?
Confusing 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? But for a significant period of time, responses from the company and the government were confusing. The U.S. government needed a central authority which used expert working groups, and which made clear to the public what was known, what was unknown, what process was in place for improving knowledge, and when there would be regular updates on those issues. A similar set of problems bedevils Japan.
Decision-Making Processes. As noted, there was substantial confusion for weeks after the Gulf spill about whether the company or different parts of government were making decisions.
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).
Implementation and Resources. 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.
In Japan, it is very hard to tell at the moment who is responsible for carrying out which decisions at the nuclear plants.
It is still too early to draw any definitive lessons from what is happening in Japan. Yet the basic similarities so far identified between these two events should give pause to all regulators and emergency planners.