Sudden nuclear disasters of the kind that occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station three years ago may not at first glance seem to have much in common with the slow-motion planetary destruction of global warming. The two phenomena, though, are alike—and not just because they are dangerous to humankind. They unfold in similar fashion, starting with a single event which then leads to and interacts with many others. Both are also easy to foresee—but unprofitable to avert.
Here’s how the slowly unfolding disaster known as climate change is similar to a nuclear power plant meltdown:
Common-cause failure. In nuclear engineering parlance, a common-cause failure occurs when one event triggers breakdowns in multiple systems. At Fukushima Daiichi, for example, a huge earthquake and tsunami not only knocked out power from the grid but also destroyed nearby roads and swamped the plant’s emergency diesel generators, making it impossible to operate pumps that circulate cooling water to the reactors. The probability that any individual system—such as a single diesel generator—would fail at any given time was extremely small, which gave the false impression that there was an even more remote chance that multiple backup systems would fail simultaneously.
Climate change is likewise a matter of risk management and probabilities, as the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out. The report urges decision makers to consider the full range of possible scenarios, “including low-probability outcomes with large consequences.”
In a changing climate, a common-cause failure is most likely to begin with an extreme weather event, such as a heat wave, flood, or prolonged drought that would destabilize critical food, water, and energy systems. While the probability of failure in any one system—an electricity blackout, say—is normally quite low, an event such as a severe heat wave would increase the likelihood of everything from agricultural losses to wildfires. Human “backups” for dealing with a heat wave—such as indoor air conditioning and outdoor lawn watering—will not operate properly if water reservoirs are too low and the temperature of nearby water bodies is too high to provide adequate cooling for electricity-generating power plants.
In the bigger picture, a January report from the Government Accountability Office warns that climate change will affect oil and gas platforms, refineries, pipelines, power lines, and a host of other critical energy infrastructure, and that these impacts “may also be amplified by a number of broad, systemic factors, including water scarcity, energy system interdependencies, increased electricity demand, and the compounding effects of multiple climate impacts.”
And the effects of climate change are not confined to our physical world—they also have a social impact. When factors such as water, agriculture, energy, and population collide, the planet’s carrying capacity is strained. Add to this the economic stratification of society into wealthy elites and poor commoners, and you have a recipe for societal collapse, according to an analysis of collapses over the past 5,000 years that will appear in the journal Ecological Economics. The elites hog natural resources and cut off their flow to the masses. Sound familiar? Just look at how American farmland, for example, once divided into many small family farms, is now being consolidated under the control of wealthy individuals and corporations.
Complexity. Like a nuclear power plant, the climate is an inherently complex system. As Charles Perrow explained in his book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies, the complexity of tightly coupled, interactive systems, such as nuclear power plants, makes accidents inevitable.
The climate has far more complexity than a nuclear plant, making it difficult for humans to “manage” such a system without inviting trouble. Changes in clouds and ice, for example, have impacts on how much of the sun’s energy is radiated back to space. Air, land, and water are coupled systems with feedback loops. As the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises, the ocean becomes more acidified, changing the conditions for shellfish and other marine life.
Failures—at nuclear plants or in the world’s climate system—are not completely avoidable, but that’s not to say that nothing can be done to prevent or mitigate them. Short-sighted moves increase the odds of failure: for example, building a nuclear plant in a seismically active zone, storing a lot of spent fuel onsite in elevated pools, and allowing regulators to get too cozy with the industry they oversee. Similarly, while events such as hurricanes and droughts occur naturally, air pollution from human activities increases the likelihood of extreme weather. Inadequate preparation loads the dice even further—as we saw with the poorly constructed levees in New Orleans that failed after Hurricane Katrina, and the destruction of wetlands that once protected the city from storm surges.
Nuclear power plants can be made safer with careful attention to factors such as design, siting, personnel training, and regulatory oversight. The more focus on factors like these, the more likely the plant is to survive a disaster—and bounce back quickly afterward.
The recommendations that a task force of senior Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff made after Fukushima are equally applicable to climate change: They include mitigation strategies and infrastructure modifications to reduce risk; better instrumentation to provide reliable data about what’s happening; constant data reevaluation to understand potential effects and determine whether safety upgrades are needed; periodic re-analysis of the potential impacts of extreme events; examination of the regulatory framework to see whether it has sufficient protections and enforcement; and evaluation of strategies for containing damage when it does occur.
Human error. In all three of the world’s nuclear power plant meltdowns—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima—human error played a significant role, and at Fukushima it was the primary cause. The Onagawa nuclear plant, located even closer to the earthquake’s epicenter, survived relatively unscathed, because its operators took a different approach to safety. But the owner of the Fukushima plant, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco), abetted by Japanese regulators and policy makers, ignored clear signs that the nuclear plant was at risk from seismic activity. Profitability trumped safety.
And so it goes with climate change. Only a few letters separate Tepco from Texaco. The biggest difference between the nuclear meltdowns at Fukushima and the melting down of the planet’s ice is that the former were a possibility rather than a certainty. With climate change, though, there is no doubt that continued business as usual will raise the planet’s temperature well beyond the danger level. And there can be no greater human error than to keep allowing humanity to destroy its own life support systems.
Oil and gas companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell, and Chevron—among the most profitable businesses in history—are well aware of the scientific consensus on climate change and have even begun to plan for an anticipated tax on carbon pollution. At the same time, however, they continue to make hefty contributions to Republican candidates who oppose such a price, and they work day and night to increase the pace of drilling, pumping, fracking, and refining.
ExxonMobil was lauded for publishing an unprecedented report to shareholders at the end of March, saying that “ExxonMobil takes the risk of climate change seriously” and addressing the potential financial impacts of carbon pricing. In the same breath, however, the company made the jaw-dropping claim that it is “on the forefront of technologies to lower greenhouse gas emissions.” In fact, ExxonMobil and its brethren are in the business of selling products that, if used as intended by the manufacturer, will raise emissions enough to kill us.
As the shareholder report states, ExxonMobil believes that it is “highly unlikely” that governments will restrict hydrocarbon production significantly enough to affect the company’s bottom line—or to put it another way, enough to stabilize the climate. Shareholders, you can breathe a sigh of relief that profits will remain intact. Pay no attention to the climate tsunami sweeping toward shore. Never mind those warning signs left on the hillsides by earlier societies. There are generators in the basement in case anything goes wrong.