Beware of Technology—6-2010
© Richard Grossman MD, 2010
The chief cause of problems is solutions.
I once sat on an airplane next to an engineer specializing in failure analysis. I told him about my “rip-stop” condom invention, which I hoped would be less likely to tear. “I’ve never had a condom break,” he said. Then his face clouded and he added: “Well, just once. In Thailand.”
As a physician I am used to things not working out as planned. There is so much variability among people it’s unreasonable to anticipate the same level of success with every patient. However, people’s faith in technology is such that we expect a perfect cell phone connection every time and spill-free offshore drilling. We are shocked when our expectations are disappointed.
I will not write about how BP grossly underestimated the amount of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico with the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Neither will I dwell on the executives’ culpability in this catastrophe, nor the dishonesty that allowed industry and watchdogs to make an incestuous agreement about safety. Nor will I highlight BP’s reckless decisions and actions. I will write about the risk of our overdependence on technology.
I know a few of the local BP executives. They are intelligent, well meaning and honest. Like you and me, they are just trying to earn a living. It is not their fault that BP has taken advantage of our social and legal structure that allows large corporations to run roughshod over the environment and the rights of people.
Engineers don’t assume that their projects won’t fail. Rather, they estimate the “time to failure.” For some highly refined mechanisms, that may be many years. For complex new technologies it may be impossible to estimate the time to failure. Don’t ever believe a claim that anything is entirely reliable.
One of the ways to increase safety is to have redundant systems. This is a bit like what we have in a car. There are brakes to avoid an accident. If the brake fails (or if you fail to use it in time) the seatbelt will keep you from going through the windshield. Air bags offer a second level of safety.
Every gas well drilled in La Plata County has redundant systems in case of a blowout. There are annular valves to squeeze the pipe, and rams if the annular systems fail. If any one valve type were perfect, a second set wouldn’t be needed.
There were valves at the Deepwater Horizon drilling site that failed. Perhaps the failure was because the explosion cut the control cables—we don’t know yet what caused the problem.
BP won’t tell me if there was an “acoustic switch” on this drill rig. This type of valve is triggered to shut not by wires but by an acoustic signal. It is required in some areas, but apparently not for rigs in the Gulf. An acoustic switch has the advantage that it can still be closed if the wires to the drilling platform are cut.
This oil spill is a tragedy, but I can think of much worse. What if there were a nuclear accident instead of one with petroleum? As bad as crude oil is to the environment, it is far better than spreading highly toxic radioactive isotopes over the Atlantic!
I view the Deepwater Horizon tragedy as a wake up call: any technology can fail. Large, complex technology can fail disastrously. Even with “failsafe” precautions, disasters happen.
Coal and petroleum fueled the industrial revolution and revolutionized the way we live. Fossil fuels have also allowed our population to grow enormously over the past two centuries. Regrettably, growth cannot continue indefinitely. Continued growth and dependence on fossil fuels are major issues that our society is just beginning to examine.
Renewable energy is one way to avoid large disasters. Most of the electricity for our home comes from solar panels on our roof. Our generating system is small, safe and doesn’t burn fossil fuels. We depend, however, on natural gas to cook and keep us warm.
I draw several conclusions from the Deepwater Horizon experience. We shouldn’t allow any more nuclear power plants. Consideration of drilling in the Arctic Ocean must be stopped. Any further offshore drilling must be carefully supervised by governmental agencies that are also carefully monitored. There must be contingency plans laid out ahead of time for dealing with an emergency such the Horizon’s blowout. Perhaps the most powerful lesson is that we must become less dependent on fossil fuels.
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