The news reporting on recent earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan has focused on the nuclear facility, but there have been intermittent reports about the effects of the devastation on chemical facilities, particularly some refineries in the affected area. Because of the higher profile radiation risk there has been essentially no discussion of the inevitable chemical releases that must have happened in the area.
Incidents like this one provide an interesting starting point for the discussion of the necessity for planning for emergencies. While it is obvious that facilities in known earthquake zones, for instance, need to plan for earthquakes, the thing that needs to be discussed is how strong an earthquake actually needs to be planned for. Similar debates need to be undertaken for other natural disasters as well.
Presumably a facility could be hardened enough to provide protection against a 9.0 earthquake. I’m not sure how expensive it would be to protect a facility against that level of physical threat, but I’m sure that it would cost so much that the facility would never get built. While I’m sure that there are those that would argue against accepting this level of risk, I think that most people would at least theoretically accept that an event that happened only 5 times in the last 100+ years around the entire world, is one that can be ignored from a prevention planning point of view. But at some point, a level of earthquake threat must be addressed in the planning process; facilities in earthquake prone areas must be able to withstand some level of earthquake shaking without significant chemical release.
Having said that for natural disasters, wouldn’t it be practical to say that man-made incidents like terrorist attacks should be addressed the same way? Shouldn’t low frequency events be ignored in the development of facility security? After all, we haven’t had a terrorist attack on a chemical facility in the United States, so why should a facility spend a great deal of money on security measures to prevent such an attack.
There are a couple of fundamental differences between an earthquake and a terrorist attack. First off, an earthquake of this magnitude is essentially a random event with a long time lag between occurrences. The probability of one occurring at any particular place in any given time frame is vanishingly small and the probability cannot be influenced by actions taken by facility management.
Terrorist attacks, on the other hand are human directed and are anything but random. They may be difficult to predict, but that is because the perpetrators take efforts to conceal their intentions. Classes of targets, however, can be identified through an analysis of past actions, public pronouncements and infiltration activities by intelligence agencies. More importantly, taking preventive measures makes a potential target less appealing because of a perception of a reduced probability of success.
Emergency Response Planning
While it is not practical to harden all high-risk facilities against a 9.0 earthquake, the same cannot be said for emergency planning for a response to the effects of such an earthquake. The military long ago learned that contingency planning is a relatively low cost exercise and can be written off as a training expense.
It seems that practicing the efforts that go into planning for an emergency response enhance the emergency response capability of those doing the practice. Just the act of identifying the various problems that could occur and thinking about what to do if they occur make it less likely that something can happen that hasn’t been thought of.
For example, if the management team of this nuclear facility in Japan had thought about the consequences of a strong-off shore earthquake they would have realized that a large tsunami would an expected occurrence. A large tsunami would inevitably destroy power transmission over a wide area and would result in prolonged power outages. The consequences of such a long term power outage should have been easy to predict. Some advance planning may have been able to come up with alternative cooling techniques that could have prevented at least some of the problems that we are seeing today.
The same sort of process needs to be undertaken for high-risk chemical facilities in regards to potential terrorist attacks. First we have to admit that there is no such thing as perfect protection or security. If a terrorist group is determined enough and skillful enough their attack will succeed; our security measures just reduce the probability of that success. Hopefully we will convince them to attack some where else, if not we must be prepared to respond to that attack.
Once we admit, even just internally, that there is a possibility of an attack succeeding, we must take the next step and plan how we will deal with the consequences of that successful attack. If we think this through in advance, we may be able to come up with measures that will mitigate the effects of such an attack. Measures conceived of and planned for in advance of their need are always easier to implement and usually more likely to succeed than those conceived of in the heat of the moment.
Learn the Lesson
So, as a community, let’s learn the lesson of the Great Japanese Earthquake of 2011. Let us start to think about the unthinkable. What happens if a dedicated team of trained terrorists successfully attacks our high-risk chemical facility? Start to think about that today, while you have the luxury of taking your time in your considerations of what could happen and how you should respond. The luxury of time can rapidly disappear; just ask the management of the Fukushima Power Plant.