Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Human Factor

I was out on my bike yesterday, out to Boiceville and back, delivering a small package to the high school. On my way back, I was having trouble getting my right foot off my pedal. I use Time ATAC pedals which usually work perfectly. Most often my foot is off the pedal because I am on a hill too steep for me to climb without taking a break or two. So on one of my little breaks, I looked at the bottom of my shoe. These pedals couple to cleats that are bolted to the bottoms of my shoes. There should be two bolts on each shoe, but my right shoe only had one bolt remaining, and the cleat had rotated around that one bolt. I reoriented the cleat and tightened the remaining bolt and managed to get back home - with more trouble from the hills than the pedals! I stopped at my Local Bicycle Shop and sure enough they had a spare bolt of the right size and shape, so that got my shoes back in business. I still have a lot of work to do to get strong enough for our local ups and downs!

The effectiveness of my bicycle really depends on a network of spare parts, maintenance supplies, and people with the expertise to use them. This is true of most any technology. On a much grander scale, this dependence is being made clear in Japan, with the problems at the Fukushima nuclear plant. Indeed, it is an interdependence. The nuclear plant requires some power source to pump cooling water, while the plant is itself a major power source. The plant's functioning is tied to its environment in many ways. Its geological environment was the immediate source of the present catastrophe, so that relationship is all too clear. But the human environment, the social context, is perhaps the most crucial facet upon which a nuclear plant depends.

I must say, I am thinking of the current pared down staff of fifty at the Fukushima plant, and thinking of their families. This staff is putting their own lives at grave risk in order to prevent this crisis from further escalation. These people are true heroes. I am praying that they can maintain clear thinking under such extraordinary stress, and that they get the support they need to succeed in their mission, to cool those reactors down, and the used fuel. I pray also for their families, that they can soon be reunited with their loved ones, with all in good health.

In weighing our options for future use of nuclear power, we need to consider what sort of arrangement could provide the greatest safety, or at least understand clearly and weigh accurately the risks involved. Since the earthquake was the primary cause of the Fukushima catastrophe, it's easy to put as a top priority: don't put nuclear reactors on geological faults. But it is very dangerous to get too focussed on the most recent failures of some technology, becoming blind to other key factors that simply haven't made themselves so obvious so recently.

The human side of nuclear technology is an essential factor to consider when weighing the risks in such systems. How might the society using a reactor fail to manage that reactor safely? War or plague or famine could weaken the society so they just don't have the capability to maintain regular servicing or to respond to some minor emergency. Technology for manufacturing spare parts might have been commonplace when the reactor was built, but could become obsolete and therefore prohibitively expensive. Various types of financial and political collapse could eradicate the engineering and managerial expertise required for such a complex system.

Nuclear Guardianship recognizes that while we have a choice whether to build new reactors, we have already committed ourselves, for many generations to come, to maintain the nuclear materials we have already generated. How can we be sure that future generations will be able to manage the nuclear wastes we leave behind? Some of this waste will remain highly toxic for tens of thousands of years, i.e. longer than recorded human history. This is already a daunting task.

The most likely way that buried waste might resurface is through human intervention. People fail to do good not merely through incapacity. Violence has been part of the human condition as long as there have been humans - that is at least a plausible hypothesis. There is a lot of trouble one can create or threaten with nuclear materials. Part of the challenge with nuclear technology is how to make sure the material and the expertise don't get into the wrong hands, the hands of people that might misuse it. Of course, misuse is a curious concept. One might classify any military use as misuse. Or perhaps military use is proper use if that use is by friendly agents, and only constitutes misuses if it is by enemy agents. Who can actually decide whether and how to use nuclear technology in the future?

Geology is a difficult science - earthquakes and tsunamis are impossible to forecast with any precision. But human behavior is so much more complex and unpredictable. If we don't want to build reactors near geological fault lines, shouldn't we also avoid building them near human fault lines?