Chernobyl offshore?

Unfair though it may seem, it is conceivable that the Macondo incident will have at least as damaging and persistent an impact on the offshore industry as Chernobyl does on the nuclear power industry. Professor Andrew C Palmer explains why.

On 26 April 1986 a nuclear reactor exploded and caught fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Ukraine. Some 30 firefighters died from radiation, and hundreds of others suffered illness. A cloud of fallout spread across much of Europe. Although the Russian authorities kept quiet, the incident was first detected by monitors in Sweden, and then rapidly publicised.

The damage was worse than it might have been if the Russian authorities had been less cynically irresponsible. One component of fallout was radioactive iodine 131I, which is rapidly taken up by children's thyroids, particularly in areas where the customary diet is iodine-deficient. Fortunately, 131I has a short eight-day half-life. In Poland the public authorities immediately advised mothers not to give their children milk for several weeks: no Polish children suffered from thyroid cancer. In the former Soviet Union, no warning was issued, and about a thousand children developed thyroid cancer, though happily thyroid cancer is operable.

Chernobyl did immense harm to the nuclear industry, and the damage it did continues to this day. Chernobyl is brought up in every argument about nuclear power, or indeed about nuclear anything. (It is not an accident that discussion of medical scans takes care never to use the words ‘nuclear' or ‘radiation', even though the radiation dose to one person from one CT scan is hundreds of times larger than the accumulated dose to the same person from 50 years of nuclear power.) In vain is it pointed out that the Chernobyl reactor was atypical, that its primary purpose was the production of military plutonium rather than electricity; that its design was poor; that it had no containment structure; and that it was operated in a country where free discussion was suppressed. The operators were engaged in a foolish experiment, whose first step was to turn off almost all the safety systems. Modern-day reactors are quite different, but the word ‘Chernobyl' wins many arguments, even though it can sensibly be pointed out that more than 400 nuclear power plants supply a significant fraction of the world's electricity, and that a ‘nuclear renaissance' is under way, led by China and Korea, with only Europe and the US lagging behind.

Is the Chernobyl argument fair to the nuclear industry? Absolutely not. Does it help to point out how unfair it is? No.

Now, in the summer of 2010, the offshore industry is trying to face up to the Macondo well catastrophe, which is far from finished with. At the time of writing, the inquiry is in progress. It is premature to jump to conclusions, but if a fraction of the gossip that circulates on the net is to be believed, the results of the inquiry will be very damaging indeed.

The parallels are far from exact, but it is not fanciful to conclude that the Macondo incident will have at least as damaging and persistent an impact on the offshore industry as Chernobyl does on the nuclear power industry. Will that be fair to the industry? No. Will it help to point out that thousands of wells are drilled into the seafloor, that millions of barrels are produced every day, and that leaks and spills are very rare? Not much. Will it help to point out that after the Piper Alpha disaster in 1988, the regulatory environment was dramatically altered, and that the industry cleaned up its act and learned lessons? Very little, and indeed that last argument might be counter-productive, because it can be pointed out that some of the changes made in the North Sea were not adopted in the Gulf of Mexico, and that conflict is inevitable if the same agency has responsibilities both for safety and environmental protection and for development of the industry.

What is to be done?
All of us will have to live with the consequences of Macondo for the rest of our careers. There are no easy answers. There must be a temptation to imagine that the incident will blow over as soon as the relief well is effective and as the oil on the beaches and in the water column slowly degrades and disappears, though the experience of the Exxon Valdez disaster is scarcely encouraging. In some quarters there might also be an illusion that the consequences can be smoothed over by some clever combination of public relations, appeals to ‘common sense', political donations, and manipulation of the interests of those economically engaged. The argument that PR can meet the problem is particularly unconvincing.

A positive outcome might be an overdue recognition that almost all accidents result from human decisions (as Piper Alpha certainly did). This has been obscured by naive applications of reliability theory, which purport to be able to demonstrate that some probability of failure is smaller than 10-n/year, where n is some arbitrary number fossilised into a code. So-called reliability theory is an academic diversion essentially irrelevant to the real problem. There is nothing wrong with the mathematical theory as such, but the fundamental and inescapable difficulty is that the data needed to demonstrate the intended results are never available (and can never be available).

If we want to have a genuine effect on the risk of accidents, we all need to concentrate much more on the immensely complex interactions between human beings. If reports are to be believed, the wives of at least two of the men tragically lost on the Deepwater Horizon say that their late husbands complained about safety issues, and that they reported that corners were being cut in the interests of completing the well rapidly. If that should turn out to be correct – and we must not rush to judgement until all the facts are assembled – we might guess that they did not feel able to speak up loudly on the rig, perhaps for fear of a macho ‘can-do' culture that would run them off as troublemakers.

The offshore industry needs to follow the nuclear, health and aviation industries, where systems formally protect whistleblowers against retaliation. OE

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect OE's position.

About the Author

Andrew Palmer has divided his career equally between practice as a consulting engineer and university teaching. In 1975 he joined RJ Brown & Associates, and in 1985 he founded Andrew Palmer & Associates, a company of consulting engineers. In 1996 he returned to research and university teaching as research professor of petroleum engineering at Cambridge University. He is currently Keppel Professor at the National University of Singapore. Prof Palmer is the author of three books and more than 200 papers on pipelines, offshore engineering, geotechnics and ice.

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