01 July 2011

Risk

I was listening to the WSJ radio podcast while getting some dinner ready, and one of their reporters said, in the context of discussing Fukushima, that some of the engineers at the plant "knew there was a risk" in the plant's older design and could conceivably face charges for not doing something about said risk.

This kind of talk really grinds my gears.  In any engineering situation there is always some risk.  You can have less risk, or more risk, but risk is not something you either have or do not have.

Now perhaps the older designs used for the reactors were indeed too risky to continue operation.  I don't know the specifics of their plant, it's been a long time since I've studied nuclear reactors, and even then it was only in passing.  If you want to claim that the engineers involved knew there was unacceptably high risk then make that case.  You might be right.  But just claiming they knew risk existed is a worse than useless story to run.

I honestly should have skipped past this story, because as soon as I heard the intro I knew they were going to make some not-even-wrong types of errors about engineering risk analysis.  Few things are more frustrating than hearing journalists report on things you know about.

2 comments:

  1. I agree. Risk cannot be eliminated, only managed, and so screaming "There was risk!" is not actually conveying any useful information.

    What bothers me more about this is people look at the Fukishima plant incident and decide nukes are very risky. It got hit by an earthquake and a tsunami, and managed to more or less contain the serious radioactive materials. I'd count that a victory for safety! It took everything mother nature could throw at it and didn't go Chernobyl.

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  2. I agree. It bothers me as well that people extrapolate from this plant to all plants. The problems at Fukushima tell us about the design of Fukushima.

    If certain aspects of their reactors were older designs and less than state-of-the-art that doesn't tell us about the risks in newer designs. If their power backups or other emergency systems were suboptimal then that teaches us lessons about their emergency systems, not all nuclear plants. They aren't all the same.

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