Slow Motion Disaster Movie

Many of you know that I have spent much of the past weeks communicating about the nuclear power plants in Japan and their struggles to manage their situation. At one point, I was talking to a producer for one of the networks, prior to being interviewed on the air. I told the woman that one of the problems with this event was that it was happening so slowly. There was a pause and the woman said “Could you explain that comment?” My answer follows (in a great many more words).

For virtually all other disasters relating to industrial complexes, the event happens like this:

  • Natural/man-made disaster strikes facility
  • Facility blows up in a spectacular fashion and burns an evil glowing orange
  • Poisonous cloud of toxins descends on the nearby neighborhoods and kills whomever it will kill
  • Event ends

These four things happen in pretty short order, usually a matter of moments, at most a few hours. Oh, the fire might last for a while longer, but the event is over.

Events at the power plants in Japan, have been unfolding for ten days and counting and so far, no member of the public has died, or even been hurt. In our modern, fast paced age, we want our events to happen in quick sound bites, not long novels. When things take more than that requisite few hours, we turn it into a disaster movie. The media jumps on the band wagon and we are off to the races.

We all know how disaster movies turn out. A huge calamitous event has to be impending and, depending on the storyline it can occur at any point. In our movie, it is supposed to be at the end when the reactors ultimately melt down and release terrible waves of radiation and dangerous radioisotopes into the environment.

Our movie requires heroes and there are plenty of those. The brave workers who have stayed at the plant site despite the fact that their families and homes were swept away by the tsunami have been an inspiration to many of us in this industry and others around the world.

However, sadly, it isn’t enough to have heroes, they must be put into life-threatening danger for the movie to play out correctly. Sure enough, even that happens here. For reasons  yet to be understood, water levels in the spent fuel pools at units 3 and 4 became dangerously low, leaving our heroes at huge risk for exposure to dangerous radiation and released contaminants. We do not yet know how those workers will fare since  total dose or contamination data have not been determined

This drama has unfolded over ten LONG days. I cannot imagine the stress those workers are under and I can only stand in awe of their courage and dedication. But it looks like this disaster movie will not have the spectacular ending some out there seemed to be hoping for. Instead, the systems and response protocols devised over many years of operation and contingency thinking ultimately worked.

It will take many months to take this event apart piece by piece and understand what happened, what worked, what didn’t and why. But rest assured that detailed analysis WILL occur and the nuclear industry around the world will take those lessons and incorporate them into their own facilities.