ANALYSIS: A Nuclear Lesson for Oil?

May 21, 2010

By: Margaret Ryan

Anyone who has followed the nuclear power industry over the last three decades has to have flashbacks watching the BP oil spill unfold.

We don’t yet know exactly what caused the accident now wreaking such havoc in the Gulf of Mexico – but anyone involved in the painful evolution of nuclear energy’s safety culture can outline the final report. It will finger a combination of human errors – both managerial and technical; a technology pushed into unknown territory without any comprehensive analysis of the potential failures, and profit pressures propelling everyone full-steam ahead.

Why am I certain? Because that combination seems to pop up wherever human beings push the high tech envelope and think they’ve finally gotten past those pesky laws of physics. Some areas we can expect to hear about:


First, it IS rocket science – but the failures were probably not. As they say on Star Trek, the oil and gas extraction industries are literally going "where no man has gone before." Only a decade ago, drilling to 35,000 feet was the stuff of science fiction. The Deepwater Horizon reached that depth in the subsea well drilled just months before this tragedy.

But the failures will be far more mundane. Look at the issues already identified – engineering documents not updated to reflect actual rig configuration, one of the five blowout preventer rams left in test mode, an undetected or ignored (we don’t know which) leak in a hydraulic system powering another ram, and whether the well bore concrete was allowed to cure long enough to develop full strength. No rocket science there!

Second, what happened to the Deepwater Horizon between the time it drilled that record-setting 35,000 foot well and the time it was deployed at this well? Did Transocean give it a thorough going over, checking out systems and materials that had been stressed as never before? Or did the company say, in effect, “Yowza!” Maintenance costs money, and this baby showed it’s so great, let’s get it out there fast and drill more!


Third, did Transocean, or BP, have any idea why the rig had worked until it failed? While the Deepwater Horizon performed at 5,000 feet, its equipment was never tested for that depth. As the challenges, and rewards, of deepwater drilling have multiplied, there’s evidence the industry rushed to exploit these reserves by layering on engineered systems. As a result, few people understand how the systems interact in a crisis.

More importantly, those few were not operating the rig. Fail-safe does not mean idiot-proof. Three Mile Island-2 safety systems operated perfectly. Ill-trained operators turned them off. Human beings who are not properly trained in complex equipment, directed by managers who don’t understand it either, have historically demonstrated an uncanny ability to defeat the smartest engineering.

And finally, we’re not in Kansas anymore. In fact, we’re not in the U.S. The deep sea oil industry involves global giants. Notice that the Deepwater Horizon was built in Korea, flagged in the Marshall Islands, owned by a Swiss company, and leased by a British company. Even some of the workers weren’t Americans. The oil originates in the United States, but it will be sold into a global market, and if China will pay more than we do, that’s where it will end up.


That leaves national regulators hobbled unless they coordinate with regulators in other countries, so everyone is demanding a minimum safety standard. Otherwise, the multinational oil industry will be able to continue playing off regulators against each other, picking and choosing where to flag and whose safety standards to meet.

One model for the oil industry may be the worldwide nuclear industry’s response to Chernobyl. Both regulators and the industry reached across national lines, exchanged expertise, and set standards that demanded the best and identified the worst — and helped them change their ways. Leaders of regulators and power plant operators recognized that “an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere,” and that the best operators couldn’t afford to be tarred by the accidents of the worst.


Is the Gulf spill getting enough international attention to be the same wake-up call to the oil industry? Or is that industry so wealthy and so arrogant that it will take more to convince them of their own self-interest? Are countries so glued to competing for industry petrodollars that regulators can’t or won’t set and hold to better safety standards?

The veterans of nuclear accidents will be waiting for those big investigative reports, knowing there’s only one sure-fire absolute here: whatever taking those recommendations seriously costs, it’ll be cheaper than the next disaster.