Lessons from Japan’s Tragedy

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International   6-8-2011
A favorite motto of mine is:  “How you think, is how you plan, is how you act, and that determines the results you get.”
Tsunami-waves-approach-JapanI’d like to apply this to lessons from Japan’s tragedy in the context of strategic thinking, systems thinking and long-term planning for particularly risky enterprises. Let’s consider, for a moment, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants in Japan that had serious problems resulting from the recent earthquakes in that country and their aftermath.
This is an argument against 20/20 hindsight and in favor of applying systems thinking in the development of those plants. You might call it scenario planning, perhaps, but there are a few elements related to the construction that would have benefited from a Systems Thinking Approach® to parts of their design.
One element is the location of the backup diesel generators – in a basement, the most likely place to flood. The flooded areas were prepared for tsunamis, by the way, with dykes to prevent or stem the effect of such flooding to the region. In spite of that preparation, the generators, intended to provide emergency power to the plants themselves, were placed in a truly dangerous environment should a flood occur.
The buildings themselves were evidently pretty well designed to withstand seismic shocks; otherwise the damage to them would have been much worse. The lack of local power from the generators has very seriously hampered the remediation and repair efforts on the plants. Had they been placed in a higher position they likely would have been operational immediately. We would expect that backup systems for nuclear power plants would be robust and tested. Sadly, rumors have it that they were neither.
Another concern is the location of the spent fuel rods. They are stored immediately on top of the reactor itself. I don’t store gas cans and other flammables near heaters, flame sources or anything that could possibly cause a spark. I can’t imagine storing spent fuel rods anywhere close to a reactor, let alone on top of it. That is more common sense than systems thinking. But a careful scan of the environment where the fuel rods are and need to be in order to store them safely, would have surely driven a different decision.
The only thing 20/20 hindsight is telling us today is that a damaged nuclear reactor is a big problem. We did not need systems thinking to tell us that. We do need to apply it to existing plants around the world to more rigorously scan the environment where they are located and to identify the scenarios that can affect them.
In the USA, I know of two plants in proximity to seismic faults, San Onofre, CA and Indian Point, NY. Both are also very close to extremely dense populations. Their proximity to seismic faults is likely unavoidable, but protection efforts can likely be improved dramatically.
How would you proceed to conduct an environmental scan for those two plants? I’d be interested in your answer. Email me at eric[at]dennergroup.com.

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