Japanese Nukes, Michael Crichton, and Frank Borman

I have always enjoyed Michael Crichton's books, but sometimes turn up my nose at his science.  I must say though that the chain of seemingly stupid errors that led to the park crashing in Jurassic Park bear an amazing resemblance to what is going on with the Japanese nuclear plans.  I don't buy his application of chaos theory to the chain of events, but its hard not to see parallels to this:

Engineers had begun using fire hoses to pump seawater into the reactor — the third reactor at the Fukushima No. 1 complex to receive the last-ditch treatment — after the plant's emergency cooling system failed. Company officials said workers were not paying sufficient attention to the process, however, and let the pump run out of fuel, allowing the fuel rods to become partially exposed to the air.

Once the pump was restarted and water flow was restored, another worker inadvertently closed a valve that was designed to vent steam from the containment vessel. As pressure built up inside the vessel, the pumps could no longer force water into it and the fuel rods were once more exposed.

The other line I am reminded of comes from the docu-drama "From the Earth to the Moon."  In the episode after the fire on Apollo 1, they have Frank Borman testifying to a hostile Congressional committee about the fire.  When asked to explain the root cause, he said "a failure of imagination."  I don't know if this is a true quote of his or purely fiction, but it resonates with me from my past troubleshooting work.  Almost every fire or major failure we looked at in the refinery resulted from a chain of events that no one had even anticipated or thought possible, generally in combination with a series of stupid human screwups.  I would describe the Japanese nuclear plant problems in the same light.

Update: Failure of Imagination from Wikipedia

From IMDB, how the line was quoted in the mini-series

Clinton Anderson: [at the senate inquiry following the Apollo 1 fire] Colonel, what caused the fire? I'm not talking about wires and oxygen. It seems that some people think that NASA pressured North American to meet unrealistic and arbitrary deadlines and that in turn North American allowed safety to be compromised.
Frank Borman: I won't deny there's been pressure to meet deadlines, but safety has never been intentionally compromised.
Clinton Anderson: Then what caused the fire?
Frank Borman: A failure of imagination. We've always known there was the possibility of fire in a spacecraft. But the fear was that it would happen in space, when you're 180 miles from terra firma and the nearest fire station. That was the worry. No one ever imagined it could happen on the ground. If anyone had thought of it, the test would've been classified as hazardous. But it wasn't. We just didn't think of it. Now who's fault is that? Well, it's North American's fault. It's NASA's fault. It's the fault of every person who ever worked on Apollo. It's my fault. I didn't think the test was hazardous. No one did. I wish to God we had.

  • aeronathan

    As an engineer I can say this, the one constant in engineering is that no matter how much you prep, plan, calculate, run scenarios and generally try to account for all eventualities, mother nature is a cast iron $%*^# who likes to come up with that one in a trillion scenario that you didn't think about or account for, blowing all your plans straight to hell...

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Interesting... I always thought one of the critical reasons for the deaths of the three was Gus Grissom's problems with the Mercury mission where the explosive bolts on the hatch caused the loss of the ship. [Partly] as a result, the hatches on future ships were inward-opening. Since this occurred on the launchpad, a fire in the capsule could have been averted with an outward-opening hatch, but the increase in pressure caused the inward-opening hatch to be impossible to open. Grissom didn't exactly have the best luck there...

    It's a shame, too... Hate to lose a fellow Boilermaker... [Can you tell I'm ready for the tourney pick'em?]

  • RandomReal[]


    I heard someone quote an engineer:

    I spent a year building a bridge over the Missouri river and the rest of my life trying to keep that river under the bridge.

  • NormD

    We let "experts" off too lightly. When things fail they all claim "it was unforeseeable" or a "failure of imagination".


    Evidently this nuclear power plant needs continuous power to run its cooling systems after shutdown. I did not know this but I assume this was well known to nuclear engineers.

    So damn it, the engineers better insure that there is a safe, reliable source of power THAT WILL NOT BE AFFECTED BY THE SAME PROBLEM THAT TAKES DOWN THE PLANT!

    Relying on a grid fed by nuclear reactors that are designed to shutdown in a earthquake is STUPID!

    Putting diesel generators where they can be destroyed by flooding is STUPID!

    Only having 8 hours of battery backup is STUPID!

    Putting the interconnect point to plumb in emergency power in a basement where it will be flooded is STUPID!

    Putting your spend rod storage pool on top of a reactor is STUPID!

    Why could not an emergency source of water be located above the level of the reactors so gravity can feed the water even with no power? This is current design and seems rather obvious.

    Why could not the diesel generators be placed on a nearby hill?

    Why couldn't the spend rods be removed to storage a safe distance away from the reactor?

    I just hope American nuclear engineers are not as STUPID as the clowns that designed Fukushima.

    The time to prevent this disaster was before you had to rely on firehoses

  • David


    In real-world engineering there are tradeoffs. The Japanese nuclear plant was built to withstand an 8.2, and it survived a 9.0 without loss of primary containment. This, to me, is not a marker of capital-S-stupid. There have been some human errors in the recovery attempt, but honestly the bigger tragedy in Japan are the thousands of people who have been killed, and the 500,000 who are displaced into shelter-camps.

  • NormD


    When you say "tradeoffs" you imply that the engineers understood the risks. Coyote seems to be saying that there was a "failure of imagination" and they did not.

    If they could not "imagine" the problems that I pointed out then they are not very good engineers.

    If they pointed out the problems and someone above them overrode them then I guess it would be nice to know who overrode them and what criteria they used.

    None of the fixes to the problems I pointed out would have cost very much to implement.

    I have always been a supporter to nuclear power, but I have assumed that the people that design and operate the plants are deeply worried about what they do and they war game out scenarios and plan their responses.

    If nuclear engineers are more like Homer Simpson then we are in deep trouble.

    Stop excusing incompetence! Demand excellence!

  • SkepticalCynical

    The type of mistakes you are describing seem very likely to be caused by crews that are understaffed, have been on duty too long and are operating on too little sleep. That suggests inadequate disaster recovery planning or an organization whose OODA loop is overwhelmed more than it does a failure to imagine all possible failure modes.

    @NormD: I am sure that the engineers understood some of the risks 40 years ago - there's a reason, after all, why the plant was rated for an 8.2 earthquake but not a larger one. That does not imply there were good or cost effective solutions to those risks. Today we have reactor designs with better passive safety measures, but they did not exist then.

    More fundamentally, there's always a cost tradeoff in engineering. All the media coverage makes us lose sight of the fact that the total costs of the reactor meltdowns (to human health, in economic terms, to the environment, etc) are dwarfed by the costs of the larger disaster - at most a tiny number of people will die as a result of radiation exposure. Even with perfect hindsight, how much would you have spent to make those costs asymptotically approach zero?

  • http://www.samplepayslip.org payslip

    Michael Crichton fed my mind with sci-fi and suspense thrillers. It led me to believe that his book, Jurassic Park, is comparable to what is happening to the nuclear power plants in Japan.

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    >>>> Michael Crichton fed my mind with sci-fi and suspense thrillers. It led me to believe that his book, Jurassic Park, is comparable to what is happening to the nuclear power plants in Japan.

    It's not.

    Crichton would be the first one to say, "Get over it. It's bad. It's not that bad, though, and the alternatives are far, far worse. For this problem to occur required no less than three substantial improbabilities, only one of which was under human control. You can make sure that human part is fixed for future events."

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    Norm, first off, you are correct in that "excuses won't cut it".

    The following, however, are not excuses:

    1) The expectation was that the worst the plant would experience during its operating life span was an 8.2. It experienced a 9.0 -- the fourth worst quake ever recorded by humans since we gained the ability to actually measure such things. Despite this, containment held, there was no incident as a result

    2) Tsunamis as tied to earthquakes are known but not predictable phenomenon, and their mechanics are ill-understood... I would consider it a possible assumption (and reasonable if so) that the location was proof vs. a predictable tsunami from an 8.2 or less quake, but not one from a 9.0.

    3) Despite both of the above, the plant was STILL not in danger until the tsunami knocked out the diesel standby generators which were designed to operate in the event the plant was SCRAMed. Herein lies the worst error I'm currently aware of -- the connectors used were not something matching an internationally standardized form that would allow a replacement generator from any number of places in the world to be flown in and connected up within a reasonable number of hours after the diesels were knocked off. I will lay you good odds this possible issue is addressed worldwide within the next 6 months, a standard devised and implemented within that time frame.

    Now, as to the rest of your complaints. These issues have mostly, if not completely, already been addressed in current designs, which are two or even three generations improved from that in Japan. Your list is easy to produce in hindsight, but I will bet you money at good odds it's one hell of a lot easier to produce in such hindsight than it is in guessing that THOSE specific problems would become important.

    The simple fact is, man, that it's a lot easier to see where you screwed up after the fact than it is beforehand -- because we are human, not God, nor even gods, and the universe is remarkably, even amazingly, adept at finding out how you screwed up and what you missed. This is largely an error of observation. You don't see all the myriad ways things "worked right" and did exactly what they are supposed to do -- probably thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps millions of ways. You ONLY see where someone failed. So it looks easy to spot those things, because -- hey, look, IT FAILED.

  • IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society

    Errors will happen... try as we might, we're not going to eliminate all
    mistakes. We CAN think out the consequences of error and build systems
    that fail in the least dangerous ways.

    The dangers of the current problems are still far from significant. The releases in question are certainly being blown far out of proportion by a hysterical media determined to push the anti-nuke anti-tech agenda for the Green Libtards.

    I would point you to a greater understanding of how overblown radiation dangers are with two links:

    Chernobyl and Fukushima: how do we define “disaster?”


    Both include a fair number of links or references which should give you the capacity to read or search for verifying how reliable the writers are as to the quality of their source material.

  • http://ellidavis.com Elli Davis

    It is hard to predict how the construction may behave fewer than 8.0 with its consequences but on the other hand you should consider any scenarios that may occur when the project is located in highly seismic area. Once more, I understand it is hard. Then many circumstances that had happened one after another and that caused current situation should be deeply examined so we can learn a lesson out of it.