Sunday, December 12, 2004

Real Life At Salem Nuclear Power Plant: Run For Your Life

There are many who think that mankind can triumph over technological failure, that we can keep building more complex (and more dangerous) systems -- nuclear power plants, chemical plants, space shuttles, etc -- and that through the application of sophisticated engineering, multiple backup systems, warnings, safeguards, behavior modification, voluntary industry guidelines (and maybe even a little regulation) these complex systems can eventually be made failsafe.

Then there are those who think that because of the complexity of the systems we are building, accidents are inevitable. Yale sociologist Charles Perrow, for example, coined the term "Normal Accidents" in his book of the same name. Using the example of Three Mile Island, the Challenger space shuttle explosion, Chernobyl and other catastrophes, Perrow argues that building in more warnings and safeguards fails because systems complexity makes failures inevitable. Accidents become inevitable, or "normal," even when all the proper safety procedures are followed. They are the natural result of the systems themselves.

OK, so we have two interesting theoretical models. First, if we work really, really hard, we can overcome any flaws and triumph in the end. Second, even if we work really, really, hard, complexity will defeat us in the end.

But then there's the third scenario: real life. That's where, instead of working really, really hard to reach perfection, you cut corners, make excuses, intimidate workers and hope for the best. That's the scenario that the New York Times lays out today. I am understating my feelings slightly when I say that after reading this article my cup doesn't exactly runneth over with confidence in mankind's ability or willingness to take all precautions necessary to guarantee safety, even if such a thing were, in fact, theoretically possible.

This is a story about how the owner and managers of the Salem nuclear power station in New Jersey are addressing a seemingly serious problem. Basically, they want to put the plant back into service even after they've discovered that one of the main pumps that helps cool one of the three reactors at the nuclear power station is damaged and may literally be shaking the place to pieces. Now this isn't your small neighborhood nuclear power plant; it's the second biggest in the country.

The problem was first discovered in 2003 and then last month:
A second engineering team concluded the pump's steel drive shaft was probably cracked, noting that, at certain speeds, the pump bangs "like a freight train." And, an advisory from the reactor's manufacturer, General Electric, said the pump has run far longer than it should without a drive shaft inspection.
This doesn't sound good. Let's look a bit closer.
"One internal company report warns that if the pump burst, it could cause an accident by spilling cooling water from the reactor vessel. The company says this type of accident is highly unlikely.
"Highly unlikely?" How unlikely would "highly" unlikely be?
Officials said such an accident would not endanger the public, but it could flood the gigantic building that surrounds the Hope Creek nuclear reactor with radioactive water.
OK, so flooding the plant with radioactive water wouldn't endanger the public. Even if I could believe this, what about the workers in the plant?

Well, at least the plant has a sterling reputation otherwise, doesn't it? Well, not quite...
A nine-month federal investigation this year uncovered problems from a leaky generator to malfunctioning water pumps. Some employees also said they were reluctant to report problems because they feared retaliation from supervisors.
Now this whole thing about workers fearing retaliation is rather confusing considering that one of the company's core health and safety values is "Trust: We respect and trust each other's opinions and decisions and follow through on all health and safety concerns." But it's more than confusing. It's also just a bit troubling considering the workers seem to be the ones who are figuring out what's going on in this place:
Workers first called attention to the pump because parts called seals were wearing out far faster than normal. The seals, which help stop water from spilling from the pump, are supposed to last six years, but they were wearing out every 18 months.

Workers also reported that the pump leaked radioactive water, according to an internal company report. In fact, the report says, it leaks so much that it has forced operators to shut down the reactor at times to avoid exceeding federal limits.
The company webpage also says that
We urge our employees never to compromise on their health and safety and if there is a question on the job, they have the right to stop and correct any unsafe conditions before they continue their work.
So does that mean that the pump will be repaired if the workers think it's unsafe to restart the plant? Perhaps someone should ask A. Christopher Bakken III, president and chief nuclear officer of P.S.E.G. Nuclear.

Oh, and then there's this:
Also, engineers found that pressure waves from the pump had been rattling nearby equipment, causing valve handles and wheels to fall onto the floor. For years, workers have simply screwed the parts back on, Mr. Bakken said. He said the pressure waves were not related to problems with the pump's drive shaft, but were caused by a different part of the pump.[
So the fact that these vibration problems are actually a different problem than the ones in the drive shaft are supposed to make us feel better?

But never fear, they're putting an alarm system in so that workers will have plenty of time to shut the place down when the alarm goes off.
Mr. Bakken said he was confident that operators would have enough time to shut down before the pump's drive shaft could break. "I will personally make sure of that before this plant is allowed to start up," he said.
(Presumably he's sleeping at the plant every night.)

OK, if you can't believe the CEO's personal assurances, who can you believe? Surely not the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) who say that the pump should be repaired because "the plant is shaking itself apart." The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection says that the pump should be repaired, but they don't have any regulatory authority to force them to do it. It's up to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission which is currently reviewing the plant. UCS has petitioned the NRC to keep the plant closed, noting that recent independent assessments of the plant indicate "a clear and present danger."

At the beginning of this post, I expressed a slight lack of confidence in management's assurances and ability to control this problem successfully. After reading the article again, however, I'd like to modify my remarks.

Are these guys fucking crazy! This is a highly complex, hugely dangerous nuclear power plant, with serious recognized problems that are literally shaking the place to pieces, the workers are too intimidated to speak out, there are all kinds of other safety problems, but the managers "personally" assure us that everything will be OK. Just trust us.

Paging Osama bin Laden. Call off your troops. Send them home. You don't have to threaten our homeland security any more. We're perfectly capable of doing it ourselves.