March 23, 2011

Contingency Plans

For about the first five days after the Japanese earthquake / tsunami, every single official reassurance about the nuclear power plant situation turned out, almost immediately, to be wrong. By the time a week ago when Obama went on TV to warn us there was nothing to worry about, my immediate reaction was: "Well, that's it. We're doomed." I expected the next day's news to bring word that, having already flattened Tokyo, Godzilla had been sighted wading ashore on Venice Beach. 

Since then, things have stabilized somewhat, but today's word of too much radiation for infants in the Tokyo water supply is a reminder of some lessons we should learn about contingency plans. Namely, that when the Big One hits, you can't count on the survivors to execute superbly.

For example, I know a fellow who was so flummoxed by the 1994 Northridge Earthquake and aftershocks that he jumped in his car and sped off to Central California for four nights in a motel. Seems understandable, right? Except that the wife and kids he left behind in his haste to get the hell out of LA were kind of sore about it. 

Or say you are a worker at the nuclear plant and you survive the tsunami washing over you. You are tough stuff and aren't all that shook up by it psychologically and are ready to respond rationally. But, rationally speaking, what's going to be your number one priority? Executing the contingency plan that begins, "Because the tsunami wall is tall enough to stop all tsunamis ... " or finding out what happened to your wife and kids? And if they are okay, where are they going to sleep, what food are they going to eat, where are they going to get gasoline and heating fuel? Is your house gone? Where's your mom? Where's your mom's sister? Your best friend is shook up because he can't find his father. Where's your dog? Where's the next shift?

Say you are a power company executive back in Tokyo. You've spent years reassuring everybody that the worst can't happen. How fast are you going to admit that the worst has happened, that it's time to flood the reactors with sea water, wiping out billions in productive capacity, to ask for help from the military and from the U.S. Navy? Say you vetoed a plan at the annual budget meeting a couple of years ago to raise the emergency generators up on steel platforms so that they wouldn't get wiped out by a tsunami because you wanted to spend the money instead on a morale building golf trip to Hawaii for the executive ranks? Are feelings of guilt going to impede your effectiveness, make you hope for the best?

The basic lesson is that you can't assume a high level of performance out of people during an unprecedented crisis.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

So you have engineers whose checklist includes checking on the engineers whose checklist includes checking on the emergency management system.

http://www.kalzumeus.com/2011/03/13/some-perspective-on-the-japan-earthquake/

A system people have faith in + a sense of duty and you certainly can expect people to behave well in a crisis.

Luke Lea said...

Funny, my take is just the opposite: that this was an episode of radiation hysteria pure and simply, radiation levels were never a threat to public health outside the plant area nor were likely to be, and that the latest iodine scare for infants is likewise overblown. From my reading the emergency was only a level 5 (on a scale of 1-to-7) and the authorities handled it by the book without casualties.

Maybe Greg Cochran can shed some light?

Polistra said...

Japan assumed competence and they got competence. Their people didn't turn into superhuman gods or Godzillas, but they did show a maximum level of cooperation and heroism within the bounds of fragile human physiology.

I really don't know what Steve is complaining about here.

Mike said...

"No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."

I feel like you're arguing for contingency plans to try to take this into account (somehow), which makes sense.

But I don't think the problem or the solution can be modeled simply. I'd say 'The basic lesson' is less that "you can't assume a high level of performance out of people during an unprecedented crisis" but moreso that the variability in performance undergoes a huge expansion. It's hard to work this into a contingency plan though...

ironrailsironweights said...

How about this: requiring all nuclear power plant workers to live at least a particular distance (e.g. 25+ miles) away from the plants. It'll make for longer commuting times, but in the event of emergency they'll know their families are safe and will be able to concentrate on work.

Peter

Anonymous said...

There are two bad ways to react to a crisis such as a natural disaster: hysteria or anemia. If people overreact, get out of control, scream, and blame everyone(but themselves), it aint gonna be good. Otoh, if people underreact and hunker down and pretend that things are all in order, it aint good either. Japanese, by their nature, have their own problem when it comes to dealing with a major crisis. They seem stunned, as if something that shouldn't have happened happened. They seem to be almost in a state of dazed denial, like a gentleman who got knocked down and muddied getting up and maintaining his composure as if nothing happened. There should have been some shouting in Japan. Not shouting to act crazy but shouting to get attention, to call for faster action by government, for more truth. Instead, Japan acted much like it did during WWII--as if war plans were going according to plan. To be sure, all people have this tendency to some degree. Even when US war in Iraq was going badly, Bush and his ilk kept denying reality day in and day out. Japanese have more of this tendency. We might admire their lack of rioting, but it just kills me how anemic and lifeless the Japanese have been about the whole crisis. Social order is good but where is the sense of urgency?

Paradoxically, an orderly system may produce more disorder in times of crisis. This could be said of both Germany and Japan. HIstorians, when examining Germany during WWI and WWII, were amazed to discover how disorganized and dysfuctional the Germans had been during those crises. This was surprising given the German reputation for efficiency, discipline, order, organization, thoroughness, etc. In fact, too much of those qualities may have slowed down the German war and economic machine. During times of stability, the system-as-designed may work perfectly well. But during times of crisis, when the system breaks down or comes under pressure, the normal processes are impeded or disabled. In such cases, people need to improvise, creatively find roundabout ways to solve problems, show initiative, voice concerns and criticism of what is and isn't working, etc, to coordinate new ways to solve problems. Since Germans were all used to doing things as they were strictly taught and taking/following orders as given, they kept doing the same things even though the conditions were different. And given the bureaucratic nature of German economy and military, both bureaucracies could be doing the same thing or neither could be doing it in the belief that the other department was doing it. Since people generally didn't speak up about what was wrong and not working, the system got worse and worse and the crisis got worse.

Anonymous said...

I think Japanese are facing a similar problem. In normal times, Japanese are pretty good at what they do and it works reasonably well. But business-as-usual is not good enough after a disaster like the recent tsunami and nuclear crisis. Local chain of commands has broken down. Central government has to show initiative and do something fast, drastic, and dramatic. But, Japanese politics, culture, system, and personality don't allow for the kind of initiative and creative improvisation times like this call for. Rudy Giuliani knew how to kick into high gear right after 9/11. George Bush(ido), on the other hand, sat like dummy in a classroom wondering 'who's gonna tell me what to do?' Maybe he's got some Japanese blood. There are no Rudys in Japan. Everyone is a colorless bureaucrat who is afraid to stand out. If some Japanese guy acted like Rudy, Japanese politics and culture would frown upon him as a gaijin-like show-off. Indeed, after the Tupac Amaru crisis in Peru, when the Japanese ambassador returned to Japan, he was hounded by politicians and the media for having arrived at a committee meeting in casual clothes and smoking a cigarette. After all that guy had been through, what mattered most to the Japanese was he didn't exhibit proper manners and respect for the 'system'.
At a time like this, Japan should be producing guys like colonel Kilgore in APOCALYPSE NOW. He should come forward and call for 50 helis to fly supplies to the stricken region to the music of Wagner. Instead, we have a lot of technocratic geeks fumbling, muttering cliches, handwringing, bowing, etc. Zzzzzzzzzzz. Snore.

It kinda reminds me of the Kurosawa movie IKIRU. The bureaucrats and clerks in that movie seem to be hardworking enough, but hardworking at what? Essentially shuffling paper from one department to another while no one sticks his neck out or steps out to actually do something. Only an old man, dying of cancer, figures he's got nothing to lose, so he's gonna do something for the community by his own initiative. Japan is a society where you're not supposed to anything unless you given what to do and told what to do. Given the punishment--official or social(ostracization)--for stepping out of one's apportioned boundary, Japanese look over their shoulders before daring to do anything.
In TAMPOPO, a bunch of Japanese executives order the same thing at a French restaurant. They also all order beer since everyone else seems to be doing it. No one thinks to ask, 'what is this dish or that dish?' It's 'he do, me do'.
Later, at an Italian restaurant, Japanese women take instructions on how to eat spaghetti. I mean what kind of society is this, where people take lessons on how to eat spaghetti?

Thorfinnsson said...

The plant operators at Fukushima have performed at a very high level throughout the entire crisis. The Japanese media have taken to calling them the Fukushima 50s (several groups) and are praising their professionalism and heroism.

Anonymous said...

Many years ago as a part time job while I was farming I was in charge of allocating irrigation water to farmers and I used to control the gate valve to let water out of one of the dams. As I started to open the valve it slid slowly off the pipe and water just poured out of it. In a flash I knew what it meant. However at first I was in denial. This wasn't happening.It couldn't happen. Then I just walked away. After a few minutes I knew what I had to do. I got hold of the engineers to fix it which took a few days and only after losing nearly fifty percent of the water.
I have always been facinated by the way I was momentarily in denial and wanted to walk away.Terrimac

jody said...

the people in charge performed OK in response to all the other damage from the earthquake and tsunami. they understand and accept that earthquakes will hit them continuously and they had planned accordingly. all their buildings were constructed to resist earthquakes and their dams constructed to resist tsunamis. they had good earthquake detection equipment which warned them 1 minute ahead of time. and they have a good system of alarms and sirens which alerted the populace.

they didn't panic and turn into helpless lemmings even when the big one hit. a 9.0 quake rumbled off the coast of a densely populated island nation and only about 20000 people were killed. relatively speaking that's pretty good. some dams failed and a few dozen people got killed directly from that but overall the dams did OK.

not reported very much by television news, i assume because it was not nearly as good for ratings as the nuclear power plant, but a huge oil refinery detonated when the tsunami arrived. when it went, it char-broiled dozens of people. it then burned out of control for over a week. like, continously burned for 9 days with such heat that the pros could not even get close to it. oil refineries are also billion dollar items, so that was a big loss for whoever owned it.

not to downplay the situation at the nuclear power plant, because it is serious and requires serious attention, but, probably, that single oil refinery exploding will end up to have killed more people than losing temporary control of 6 fission reactor cores and associated spent fissile material at an obsolete 40 year old installation.

jody said...

in my opinion, the big problem with the fukushima nuclear power plant situation was the reluctance of the people in charge to admit they couldn't handle it and that they needed outsiders to help.

this is not a race issue. this is a culture issue. the people in charge of that power plant stood to lose all face. in japan that's something to avoid at almost any cost.

i actually disagree with jared taylor about the minimal looting and crime (there is some minor looting and there even was a major bank robbery) situation being due to race and not culture. it's culture in this instance. it's japan specific. an earthquake induced societal breakdown in other asian nations would definitely lead to good amount of looting and crime. in china or korea the only thing which would stop this is immediate local threat of violence by police or military units - if the long arm of the law were not around there would be some looting. in vietnam or thailand or the philippines there would be plenty of crime.

Anonymous said...

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/japan-earthquake-and-tsunami-in/8395153/Japan-earthquake-Looting-reported-by-desperate-survivors.html

Japan earthquake: Looting reported by desperate survivors
Isolated incidents of looting have been reported as survivors of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami become increasingly desperate.


-------------

This was bound to happen. Hungry people will even resort to cannibalism.

Anonymous said...

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703410604576216293024644156.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

FREE BEER!! Even Japanese cannot resist.

jody said...

half a million dollars stolen from wrecked bank vault.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/22/japan-tsunami-shinkin-bank-robbery_n_839152.html

wonder what the bank's plan was for "totally destroyed vault door and no security guards present".

The Reluctant Apostate said...

I have to second Luke Lea here. The people who really fell down on the job were the Western journalists who inadequately described the situation in a manner that was sensationalist and likely to inspire fear in a populace that is largely ignorant of the nature of ionizing radiation and how it applies in the context of Fukushima.

Nanonymous said...

I am with Luke Lea on this. Most things went exemplary well considering how badly Nature hit.

Radiation thing from the get go was nothing but hysteria. Considering how extraordinary the quake and tsunami were, all nuclear plants performed very well (yes, including Fukishima; it could have been better but it's life - everything cannot be best at all times). Likewise, people performed generally very well, doing the right thing most of the time and limiting number of deaths.

It's all about cost and benefit balance. Japanese could have built a wall 100 stories high and 1 mile thick if they wanted. They never wanted that, correctly.

There will be lessons learned and incremental improvements made. Life goes on.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to see what's in front of your face. Poor planning at nuclear plants, dozens made ill. Towns, not parks, in tsunami susceptible areas: 20,000 dead. Seattle is next.
Robert Hume

Reg C├Žsar said...

You are tough stuff and aren't all that shook up...

Shaken up.

When the smartest "public intellectuals" in the realm start talking like Elvis (or worse, like my cheesehead in-laws), civilization is not long for this land.

Anonymous said...

Luke Lea and Nanonymous are correct. I live in Tokyo and flew to New York last week and was horrified by the way the nuclear issue is being misreported by US media. The Japanese authorities have done a good job and their statements have been factual at nearly every step, and they have avoided the flight to hyperbole that Western news networks couldn't resist.

Here's an example of spontaneous social organization amongst Japanese who were cut off from society at large (by Martin Fackler, probably the only trustworthy Western journalist when it comes to reporting on Japan):

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/24/world/asia/24isolated.html

Laban said...

Jody is right about reluctance to admit they needed help, and loss of face. Apparently after the explosions TEPCO wanted to pull all employees off site and basically walk away. The Japanese PM told them they couldn't, that it wasn't about TEPCO but about Japan as a nation.

When they started dumping water by helicopter, and 90% of it missed, I think people suddenly realised (I certainly did) that they were pretty low on ideas. The following day the UK Guardian newspaper actually ran an open post asking for reader suggestions on getting water to the hot fuel pools. It may be a coincidence, but everything they're doing now was among the suggestions of the readers (US drone for hi-def video of damage - I think it flew from Guam, fire trucks/water cannon and long-reach concrete pumps for pond cooling).

Anonymous said...

"Feelings of guilt"? Everyone knows Japan is a shame culture.

xxxxx said...

The fuel supplies of the emergency generators would have to been elevated too. They also got washed out by the tsunami

xxxxx said...

The fuel supplies of the emergency generators would have to been elevated too. They also got washed out by the tsunami

AMac said...

Re: Luke Lea's comment on radiation hysteria

Relative risk and cost-benefit analysis continue to be absent from mainstream media accounts. The WSJ as much as NBC News. I doubt it's explicitly political or particularly American, even though this is the sort of ignorance that is as comfortable to the SWPL/NPR mindset as bedroom slippers.

Today's headline is that Tokyo's tapwater is dangerously tainted with radioactive iodine.

I couldn't find any before-and-after estimate of the risks of thyroid cancer. Which is telling in and of itself, for a story getting this much play. So I took a shot at calculating them, posted at BraveNewClimate

By my cocktail-napkin arithmetic, an infant drinking a half-liter of Tokyo tapwater a day for the next month (at the maximum reported I-131 levels) would have his or her lifetime thyroid cancer risk increased from 0.90% to 1.04%.

Maybe somebody over there who is better-informed will offer a more accurate estimate.

Anonymous said...

Seattle is next.

I thought the Puget Sound would act to baffle a tsunami? Anyway it's Portland that's next, from the eruption of Mount Hood.

Dutch Boy said...

Nor can you be sure that the relevant folks have made appropriate assumptions about potential emergencies or that they will tell the truth about what's really going on (the latter is a near impossibility!).

Anonymous said...

My current pet theory is that people who have had cancer or have known someone who has had cancer are more likely to panic over radiation.

This is especially true for those who saw those SciFi movies of the fifties. Actually they still make post apocalyptic movies (The Book of Eli, The Road) but they don't push the mutant plots so much anymore.

Everyone expected the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to be: (A) mutant monsters (B) tragically infertile (C) or short lived and sickly. None of that happened of course. The survivors seemed to live longer healthier lives with especially low cancer rates.

Few people seem to connect those Chilean miners caught under ground with nuclear power. All mining is dangerous but uranium mining requires fewer people under ground. That saves lives. It shouldn't be called "Clean Coal" but rather "Deadly Coal".

My father in law died of Black Lung. Yet there isn't much media concern with the 42,000 Americans who go underground to dig coal. The comparative handful of underground uranium miners suffer from exposure to radon - the radioactive gas. But coal mining releases more radon than does uranium mining.

Worried about radiation in the environment? Advocate for nuclear power and ban the burning of coal.

All the really big and tragic industrial accidents have been chemical not not nuclear. The Bhopal insecticide plant disaster killed at least 3,000 people immediately whereas Chernobyl two years later had only about 30 immediate deaths. Yet somehow you get nearly ten times as many Google hits for "Chernobyl disaster" as for "Bhopal disaster".

There have been no fatalities from the Fukushima incident.

The public consciousness has been polluted with misinformation packaged as news and science.

Worry about nuclear bombs. Don't worry about nuclear power plants.

Albertosaurus

Whiskey said...

Bush did not ignore reality, his problem was his Defense Secretary was wedded to a concept of lighter, cheaper, quicker infantry forces that could be deployed rapidly (which was Bush tasked Rumsfeld to do before 9/11) and did not adjust. Many of Bush's top generals were of the same opinion, viewing Clinton's Iraq policy as a failure driven by US inability to act short of overwhelming firepower (basically a rejection completely of the Powell Doctrine).

Bush did take a bold step of the Surge in Iraq with Petraeus.

Nor were Germans at the Squad Level up to divisional levels disorganized. The German Army fought perhaps the most disciplined and blood-letting retreat in history. It was only the Reichsfuhrer and his top people who were a clown show. Same with the Japanese.

bruce said...

"but today's word of too much radiation for infants in the Tokyo water supply"

is just another media false report. In fact it is all the media reporting which has been wrong. We need a new media, and a lot more skepticism.

Whiskey said...

The Japanese strategy after Midway, became to bleed America dry, with such huge losses of attrition that the democracy would sue to terms allowing Japan to keep some though not all of its conquests.

Far from being disorganized and panic driven, the Japanese pursued this with horrific discipline, and it very nearly worked. Truman dropped the Atomic Bombs because of the bloodletting at Iwo and worse, Okinawa. Where about 22,000 US servicemen were killed, dozens of ships sunk, hundreds put out of service, etc.

For their part, the junior men in Japan's military very nearly pulled off a coup to prevent surrender after Nagasaki, and "stick with the plan."

icr said...

Whiskey is right about the Germans. German officers (and NCO's) were well-known for having more initiative than their opponents and they were actually expected to disobey orders if that was necessary to carry out a mission more effectively. When there was rigidity it was imposed by the political leadership.

Anonymous said...

My current pet theory is that people who have had cancer or have known someone who has had cancer are more likely to panic over radiation.

I tend to agree. And besides, other things than radiation cause cancer.

Also the Baby Boomer generation has no shortage of "nucleophobia" thanks mostly to horror movies and Soviet anti-nuclear propaganda. (The Chernobyl accident was probably more effective at creating nucleophobia, than all the purposeful commie proganda.)

Nanonymous said...

AMac, given the assumptions your calculations are correct. Yet, the estimated risk is almost certainly wrong. The reason?

The "I-131 vs thyroid cancer risk curve is linear" assumption is common but there is no empirical reason to believe it. The near linearity was observed in the range of doses much, much higher anything by ingesting nearly natural background radiation levels. Extrapolation down is merely a precaution, a worst case scenario.

As a reference point, typical medical use of I-131 for image and radiotherapy involves doses of ~500 MBq. Although a single time, it is roughly 3,000,000 more decays than found in one liter of Tokyo water. The statistics of nuclear medicine shows no increased cancer incidents beyond pre-existing.

As far as cancer goes, oral sex is far more riskier (HPV!) than all but extreme cases of radiation exposure.

AMac said...

Nanonymous, thanks for checking my math on the risk of I-131 in Tokyo tapwater.

The article I referenced stated that the dose-response curve was linear, so I used that assumption. As you point out, there is some evidence that low exposures to ionizing radiation are proportionately less harmful, or not harmful at all (the hormesis hypothesis).

It's also worth pointing out that thyroid cancer has a very high cure rate. And that studies of thyroid abnormalities after Chernobyl are confounded by the effect of clinicans paying careful attention to something they usually don't think about much. Do they find things because I-131 exposure caused it, or because some degree of "abnormalities" is often present but usually overlooked?

These factors mean that my lifetime risk estimate increase for thyroid cancer from I-131 exposure at Tokyo tapwater levels (0.90% raised to 1.04%) may be high. It seems unlikely to be low.

Yet nobody in the media seems to have had a combination of numeracy and interest, and looked at the issue in these terms.

Plenty of stories with terms like "tainted" and "contaminated" and "above safe levels", though.

Elbrac said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h0LRJvYcMCc

Japanese form of corruption. I read Japanese baseball is pretty corrupt too, with referees pretty much being owned by the, well, owners.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Reg Caesar - learn some actual linguistics rather than 8th-grade grammar textbooks before you make such comments. And develop a sense of humor, or at least playfulness about language while you're at it.

As to emergencies: In the military especially, they take the general attitude that you will not rise to the occasion, but revert to the level of your training.