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An American Chernobyl

The drawing of parallels between industrial accidents is a dubious armchair sport, but here the parallels are just piling up and are becoming too hard to ignore:

  • An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 spewed radioactive waste across Europe
  • A recent explosion and sinking of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform is spewing heavy oil into the Gulf of Mexico

These accidents were both quite spectacular. At Chernobyl, the force of the explosion, caused by superheated steam inside the reactor, tossed the 2500-tonne reactor lid 10-14 meters into the air where it twirled like a tossed penny and came to rest back on the wrecked reactor. The cloud of superheated vapor then separated into a large volume of hydrogen gas, which detonated, demolishing the reactor building and adjoining structures. At Deepwater Horizon, a blowout of a recently completed oil well sent an uncontrolled burst of oil and gas, pressurized to over 10,000 psi by the 25000-foot depth of the well, up to the drilling platform, where it detonated, causing a fire. The rig then sank, and came to rest in a heap of wreckage on top of the oil well, which continues to spew at least 200,000 gallons of oil a day. Left unchecked, this would amount to 1.7 million barrels of oil per year, for an indefinite duration. This amount of oil may be enough to kill off or contaminate all marine life within the Gulf of Mexico, to foul the coastline throughout the Gulf and, thanks to the Gulf Stream, through much of the Eastern Seaboard, at least to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and possibly beyond. A few tarballs will probably wash up as far north as Greenland.

The Chernobyl disaster was caused more or less directly by political appointeesm: the people in charge of the reactor control room had no background in nuclear reactor operations or nuclear chemistry, having got their jobs through the Communist Party. They attempted a dangerous experiment, executed it incompetently, and the result was an explosion and a meltdown. The Deepwater Horizon disaster will perhaps be found to have similar causes. BP, the owner of Deepwater Horizon, is chaired by one Carl-Henric Svanberg—a man with no experience in the oil industry. The people who serve on the boards of directors of large companies tend to see management as a sort of free-floating skill, unrelated to any specific field or industry, rather similarly to how the Soviet Communist party thought of and tried to use the talents of its cadres. Allegations are already circulating that BP drilled to a depth of 25000 feet while being licensed to drill up to 18000 feet, that safety reviews of technical documents had been bypassed, and that key pieces of safety equipment were not installed in order to contain costs. It will be interesting to see whether the Deepwater Horizon disaster, like the Chernobyl disaster before it, turns out to be the direct result of management decisions made by technical incompetents.

More importantly, the two disasters are analogous in the unprecedented technical, administrative, and political challenges posed by their remediation. In the case of Chernobyl, the technical difficulty stemmed from the need to handle high level radioactive waste. Chunks of nuclear reactor fuel lay scattered around the ruin of the reactor building, and workers who picked them up using shovels and placed them in barrels received a lethal radiation dose in just minutes. To douse the fire still burning within the molten reactor core, bags of sand and boron were dropped into it from helicopters, with lethal consequences for the crews. Eventually, a concrete sarcophagus was constructed around the demolished reactor, sealing it off from the environment. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, the technical difficulty lies with stemming a high-pressure flow of oil, most likely mixed with natural gas, gushing from within the burned, tangled wreck of the drilling platform at a depth of 5000 feet. An effort is currently underway to seal the leak by lowering a 100-ton concrete-and-steel "contraption" onto it from a floating crane and using it to capture and pump out the oil as it leaks out. I think "sarcophagus" sounds better.

The administrative challenge, in the case of Chernobyl, lay in evacuating and resettling large urban and rural populations from areas that were contaminated by the radiation, in preventing contaminated food products from being sold, and in dealing with the medical consequences of the accident, which includes a high incidence of cancer, childhood leukemia and birth defects. The effect of the massive oil spill from Deepwater Horizon is likely to cause massive dislocation within coastal communities, depriving them of their livelihoods from fishing, tourism and recreation. Unless the official efforts to aid this population are uncharacteristically prompt and thorough, their problems will bleed into and poison politics.

The political challenges, in both cases, centered on the inability of the political establishment to acquiesce to the fact that a key source of energy (nuclear power or deep-water oil) relied on technology that was unsafe and prone to catastrophic failure. The Chernobyl disaster caused irreparable damage to the reputation of the nuclear industry and foreclosed any further developments in this area. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is likely to do the same for the oil industry, curtailing any possible expansion of drilling in deep water, where much of the remaining oil is to be found, and perhaps even shutting down the projects that have already started. In turn, this is likely to hasten the onset of the terminal global oil shortage, which the US Department of Energy and the Pentagon have forecast for 2012.

Translate "industrial accident" into Russian and back into English, and what you get is "technogenic catastrophe". This term got a lot of use after the Chernobyl disaster. It is rather more descriptive then the rather flaccid English phrase, and it puts the blame where it ultimately comes to rest in any case: with the technology, and the technologists and politicians who push it. Technology that can and sometimes does fail catastrophically, causing unacceptable levels of environmental devastation, is no good, regardless of how economically necessary it happens to be. It must be shut down. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we are already hearing that expansion of deep-water drilling is "dead on arrival". This could be the beginning of the end for the huge but dying beast that is the petrochemical industry, or more such accidents may be required for the realization finally to sink in and the cry of "Shut it down!" to be heard.

The energy industry has run out of convenient, high-quality resources to exploit, and is now forced to turn to resources it previously passed over: poor, dirty, difficult, expensive resources such as tar sands, heavy oil, shale, and deep offshore. Under relentless pressure to do more with less, people are likely to try to cut corners wherever possible, and environmental safety is likely to suffer. Before it finally crashes, the huge final effort to wring the last few drops of energy out of a depleted planet will continue to serve up bigger and bigger disasters. Perhaps the gruesome aftermath of this latest accident will cause enough people to proclaim "Enough! Shut it all down!" But if not, there is always the next one.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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