Energy Emergencies Happen: Are You Prepared?

By Lew Tagliaferre


Three recent infrastructure disasters in the news should help convince energy industry consumers that, whenever human nature and God’s laws of physics collide, God always wins. Emergency preparedness is key to response in such situations. Although the collapse of the I35 Highway bridge in Minneapolis occurred in an instant, its genesis was long in the making and apparently mostly ignored by highway managers. No one knows how many other bridges are on the verge of collapse from lack of maintenance and upgrades, but thousands are known to be in need of attention. Similarly, the families and the workers caught in the collapse of a coal mine in Utah know that extracting fuel from deep in the earth is a risky occupation, even if all engineering precautions are taken. Unfortunately, they are not always taken if profits are challenged in the process. And, the impact of an earthquake in Japan under a nuclear power plant in July 2007 could be replicated in the United States if acts of man are not mobilized differently should such an emergency occur. But, even as the dangers increase, shifting of resources may be putting more Americans at risk of energy disasters. Did you know there are only about 500 open beds available nationwide for treatment of burn victims?

The Japan event is a special case in point. From a news analysis, it appears that Japan has seen a series of nuclear problems. Most of them were caused by mishandling of emergency procedures, though the recent one at Tokyo Electric (TEPCO) was initially caused by a large earthquake. Earlier this year, Hokuriku Electric had to shut down its Shika Nuclear Power Station because it had hidden major accidents in the past. The problem was not that TEPCO had a mechanical failure in its plant, but that it overlooked the situation and did not handle the information properly and promptly. It is also said that the nuclear engineers built an “ivory tower” around themselves so that even the utility’s senior management could not obtain crucial information in a timely manner. Critics say this kind of bureaucracy and lack of transparency are typical of the utility industry. But, they may also be nested at the federal government, which oversees all nuclear power stations. Nevertheless, that does not relieve energy consumers from planning and rehearsing their own energy emergency-response procedures.

As in the United States, the Japanese electric utility industry has been working hard to keep nuclear power running to supply its stable source of power to consumers. Levels of engineering and technology margins of the nuclear plants were thought to be high enough, even facing a 6.8-magnitude earthquake. Apparently, the problem was the operation and risk control after the emergency. When utility personnel found that the earthquake was way over the design limits, they went into panic and lost control. In addition, fire at a substation was totally out of the blue – the result being that employees just waited for the fire engines to extinguish the fire. Although it seems that little could have been done to further reinforce the structure of the plant (designed to be safe at 6.5 magnitude), the utility might have enhanced risk control and emergency drills.

Nuclear power plants are being reconsidered to help meet the growing needs for electric power in the United States and throughout the world. If all the presently proposed power reactors are built, the number of countries operating nuclear-power reactors will increase from today’s number of 31 to 38. Since no new U.S. plants have been built in the past 30 years, the oldest of 103 existing plants (out of a worldwide total of 429) are approaching their design lifetimes and their maintenance is becoming more problematic. Storage of nuclear waste has been a challenge to the Feds all along. It must be sequestered for centuries before it degrades to safe levels. The federal government assumed responsibility for its storage decades ago. Although billions of dollars have been spent preparing a centralized site under Yucca mountain about 100 miles from Las Vegas, Nevada lawmakers have successfully prevented its activation with congressional delays and lawsuits. Meantime, nuclear waste is stored in special containers at the generation sites around the country, raising the cost and lowering the safety of nuclear power over the long run. Even if Yucca mountain is activated, nuclear waste must be transported to the site, and you can imagine the implications of that danger. Getting the various states to permit its movement across their turf could be an insurmountable obstacle. In the meantime, the billions already spent preparing the site at Yucca mountain remain idle and unproductive.

A new report just released by the British non-government think tank, Oxford Research Group, attacks the recent resurgence of interest in nuclear generation as a solution to the incessant growth in demand for power. It emphasizes, in part, that nuclear power has not changed much in its basic characteristics; it is still the same inherently dangerous, though immensely powerful, process that it always was. But, there is a new issue – that of climate change – to which it can be posed as the answer. In spite of its dangers, acceptance of nuclear power is growing worldwide. That is partly because some people believe that, without nuclear power, the lights will go out or they will have to return to economically stifling levels of energy usage.

But, its critics claim that nuclear power is more of a problem than a solution. They make important new points, such as the infeasible rate of building new nuclear power stations that would be needed for a nuclear renaissance to make much of a difference in global warming, and the declining quality of uranium ore that undermines some of the more extravagant claims about nuclear power’s low carbon footprint. Above all, they analyze (in convincing and sometimes alarming detail) the problems of international and domestic insecurity that a worldwide revival in nuclear power would pose. An international nuclear renaissance, especially if it moves in the direction of developing fast-breeder reactors, may lead to nuclear-weapons proliferation and the threat of increased terrorist action. An international plutonium economy will inevitably increase the risk that the capability to fabricate nuclear weapons will spread and that fissile materials will be marketed to terrorists for nuclear explosives.

In addition to the dangers posed by coal mining and nuclear power, the growing demand for imported natural gas will require building several dozen terminals for porting liquefied natural gas near population centers along the coastlines. The mayor of Boston has been a vocal critic of the LNG port that actually requires highly volatile tankers to tie up at an inner city dock. I hope you are getting the picture.

The bottom line is that energy comes at a price of potential for risk and danger. The past era of relative security and dependability may be transitioning to one of unexpected emergencies and crises in response. It is a good idea to begin preparation at your facilities and within your industry associations for emergency responses to the potential for disaster that could lie ahead. Turn off the electricity to your building for 1 week to see what I mean.


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