Guest Blog: Fukushima and Unanticipated Interactions in Technological Systems
Today I have a guest blog from my colleague at Calvin, Gayle Ermer, Professor of Engineering.
At 2:46 pm on March 11, 2011, electrical power generation from nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi complex on the eastern side of the island of Honshu was proceeding normally. Just another on-going technological process, one of many running quietly in the background, that sustained the everyday activities of the Japanese populace. A mere 4 hours later, everything had changed: the eyes of the world were focused on a potential nuclear disaster.
What caused this dramatic shift? The situation was certainly initiated by a natural disaster. An earthquake of unprecedented magnitude generated a massive tsunami that devastated the area, resulting in great loss of life and critical infrastructure damage. This disrupted the electrical power source used to pump cooling water into the reactor cores. But, the proximal cause was a series of technical failures (both in design and operation of the reactors) that left engineers working feverishly to find alternative ways to carry away waste heat and avoid nuclear meltdown. They were only partially successful. The next day, an explosion of trapped hydrogen gas generated from exposed fuel rods ruptured a containment building. Later analysis revealed that significant amounts of radioactive material had been released into the environment. The effect of the tsunami on the nuclear plant over the next days and weeks resulted in a verifiable nuclear disaster (even though the situation could have turned out much worse).
Careful consideration shows that the Fukushima events occurred due to a chain of interacting failures that escalated the harmful effects. Trouble with contemporary technology often comes from unanticipated interactions between otherwise minor failures. The complexity of modern technology can prevent us from compensating for these interactions. A nuclear energy generation system (as indicated by the reactor schematic above) has many subcomponents and interconnections. Engineers design these complicated structures by reducing the whole into smaller parts. Large systems are subdivided so that we can predict the behavior of the individual sub-systems and optimize their performance. We draw system boundaries to make possible this analysis, but this boundary-drawing activity can hide potential interactions. For example, the nuclear facility construction company engineer responsible for design of diesel backup generators to power reactor core cooling pumps might draw system boundaries that neglect or underestimate the effect of geological events (leaving that task to the site engineers). The generator size and location might then be chosen based primarily on cost and fuel efficiency, leaving the system as a whole vulnerable.
As engineers, we need to respond by consciously taking a more connectionist approach to technology design. Before and after the system has been subdivided for our modeling and analysis, we need to look outside our own system boundaries to make sure we are making decisions that don’t compromise the safety of the overall system. This is a difficult task. A Christian understanding of reality recognizes that our knowledge will always be finite. Only God is all-knowing and can comprehend the intricacies of all of the phenomena, including tectonic plate shifts and nuclear fission reactions, that will influence our designs. We also live in a fallen world as a result of human sin. Genesis 3 reminds us that “through painful toil you will eat food from [the earth] all the days of your life… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” Our efforts in anticipating the behavior of engineered systems will always be challenging: no powerful technology, such as nuclear power, can ever be made completely risk-free. But our Christian convictions should prompt us to apply our creativity and analytical abilities in a connectionist framework which will make it possible to decrease the hazards of technology failure.
You only scratched the surface by calling attention to the problem of integrating complex technologies into our lives. This is usually as far as anyone goes. Nor is the solution an abstract recognition that Christians need to be better stewards than their colleagues who don’t think of stewardship as under the rule of God.
In applying our creative abilities we need to consider how to subordinate our analytical abilities to the larger scope of human concerns. Too often we equate the rational with the analytical which is a mistake. In complex problems where risks are difficult to anticipate creativity involves more than analysis(i.e. breaking things down).
This does not mean, for instance, not building nuclear power plants as some would propose. Nor does it mean simply taking a technical approach to solving issues whereby there is better integration of subsystems. Engineers need to bring in people who think differently than Engineers in order to move toward better risk management. This is not easy and can be threatening to everyone on a team for different reasons. This problem is even more profound in the arena of bio-engineering in my opinion.Posted by Dick Friedrich on 11/03 at 09:43 AM
Dick, I heartily concur with your comment. While my post was focused on the technical analysis part of the design process and what individual engineers should try to do differently at that stage, I think that having a diversity of types of people involved in all aspects of a project would be a huge help toward anticipating potential interactions. To improve safety, we need to compensate not just for the interactions of failures within the technical parts of the system, but for those between various aspects of the system and the surrounding environment, the people who run it, and the society that depends on it.
Christian engineering managers should certainly construct teams to counter the tendencies of engineers toward a purely technical approach to problem solving (although I would also encourage engineers to think at a broader level than their technical sub-system). Often, the only non-technical people who are involved in a large-scale project include financial analysts and marketers who may have a vested interest in short-circuiting the risk analysis process. We need to counter-balance both of these tendencies, which would be helped by bringing in those who can represent “the larger scope of human concerns.” A challenge might be finding qualified people who can speak to the cultural concerns as well as the specific details of nuclear or bio-engineering technology.Posted by Gayle Ermer on 11/07 at 10:34 AM
Very well written! This guest blog is informative. Whatever share about “Reactor Diagram” is brilliant. I bookmark this page to refer this page. Thanks :)Posted by Carlos on 11/20 at 05:19 AM
Very well composed piece on our role in this world. The accident in Japan was quite bad, but I hate to think how much worse it could have been.
As you point out, it seems there was a pretty big lack of oversight…no one considering the entire system and how it might respond to such an event. Having back-up diesel generators is great as a safety measure to run the cooling pumps…but those generators were completely incapacitated during the earthquake, and it proved to be no small feat to get generators on-site and up and running.
We got a bit of a scare here in VA recently when the 5.8 earthquake that hit us caused the North Anna powerplant to be shutdown. It really makes you wonder if anyone is truly doing a sufficient job considering the safety aspect given how potent nuclear power is.Posted by A Virginia Diesel Mechanic on 11/22 at 07:01 PM
Even trailer parks have their electric cables 16ft high, with vans on stilts if on a floodplain.Posted by 53north on 12/11 at 02:53 AM