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King: When risk needs to be taken seriously

POSTED: May 28, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Americans are risk takers.

Capitalism depends on it. We invest our time, energy, and capital resources, and hope to profit from the endeavor. On the other hand, there’re certain risks we don’t take. We don’t take risks with our family. We insure our home, our business (if we have one), our cars, etc, against unexpected loss, and we take commonsense measures like buckling our seat belts.

Americans don’t plan on calamity, but we are a responsible people. We insure against disaster when we can. The problem with risk is we’re always dealing with a degree of unknown.

Robert Bea is one of the world’s leading experts in catastrophic risk management. A former executive with Shell Oil Co., he’s the man policymakers and corporate CEOs call on when they want to know the likelihood of an accident like the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the Deepwater Horizon explosion, or a natural disaster like Katrina or Superstorm Sandy.

Bea is an engineer by training, but after 50 years experience he’s realized most disasters are not the result of engineering failure. They’re caused by human or organizational failure. Look at the disasters listed above. In every case the postmortems indicate that warnings were there but were ignored.

Corporations put profit before safety, and city managers have budget priorities that can’t be ignored. As cynical as it sounds, these are everyday realities. When the money isn’t there, something has to be put off. This is where risk analysis kicks in. What can be put off and what can’t?

If a bridge is structurally unsafe, managers must balance the risk of collapse vs. the cost of repair. Perhaps the risk factor is one in a hundred, but the bridge isn’t on a major thoroughfare. The chance of personal injury is low. Of course, should the bridge collapse and someone die, an expensive lawsuit could result. Do you fix it or forget it?

Obviously there is more to risk analysis than numbers, but basically when risk is high but the consequences of an accident are low, one can afford to take chances. When the risk is low but the consequences are catastrophic, taking chances isn’t an option.

Now let’s look at nuclear power plants.

The nearest nuclear power plant to Northeast Georgia is the Oconee Station just over the border in South Carolina. Like many nuclear plants, the Oconee is located on a river. Upriver from the plant lies the Jocassee Dam and 1,185,000 acre-feet of water.

Should the dam fail, the water would flood the Oconee plant and, as a Nuclear Regulatory Commission memo states, “Everything on site would be destroyed or useless.” In other words, another Fukushima, Japan.

What is the risk of this happening? I tried to find out at a NRC open house May 9 at the Oconee Plant. I’d heard some statistics implying the risk was around 1 in 250. Not good considering the devastating consequences. After some verbal jousting, the staff at the open house admitted the figure came from within the NRC.

However, one man’s statistics can be little more than one man’s opinion. All it really told me was that the NRC is not a monolith where everybody toes the same party line. There is controversy within the organization. So when I got home, I did a little research online.

Seems there is a good bit of controversy within the commission. I suggest interested readers check this out for themselves. The best summary I could find was written by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a respected nonprofit science advocacy group founded in 1969 by the faculty and students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Search for: Dam Failures and Flooding at U.S. Nuclear Plants.

Remember this: Some ionized radioactivity can last millions of years, and you can never remove human error from the equation.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly on Tuesdays and at gainesvilletimes.com/viewpoint.


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