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When Oil Spills Go Nuclear

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William R Castlelich
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By President Truman's executive order the U.S. detonated "Little Boy" on the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and followed this, three days later (8/9/45), dropping "Fat Man" over Nagasaki.

The bombs worked to perfection, although in their initial testing and splitting of the atom some postulated the reaction could not be controlled and they might be opening a firestorm that could consume the earth. This concern, however, was not given much weight and indeed proved to be the perpetual "Chicken Little" argument we find in every crowd be it a crowd of incredibly intelligent nuclear physicists or a crowd of people who want to keep government out of their Medicare.

On January 28, 1986, over the Atlantic off the coast of Florida, at 11:30 a.m. (EST) the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing its 7 crew members. The Columbia shuttle burned over Texas on reentry on February 1, 2003, killing all 7 aboard.

Exploration, by its nature, contains inherent and almost always acceptable risk. The preceding should not be viewed as a criticism of NASA or our exploration of space. It is not. Any exploration has a price. I am a strong proponent of our exploration of space; the price, although I have not shared it, is acceptable to me.

NASA, arguably, however, has redundancy built into virtually every system and some of the greatest scientific minds working overtime and on overdrive to insure safety and a satisfactory result. When the disabling explosion hit Apollo 13 these great minds worked with what little was left of the spacecraft to bring the three astronauts home and even though much of the film was probably "loosely based on a true story" no one (except those who believe NASA is a Hollywood conspiracy) can argue with the successful outcome of this aborted mission.

On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, California, ran into Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef. The ship's master was Joseph Hazelwood and all sorts of rumors circulated about his guidance of this ship immediately prior to this catastrophe. Whether Hazelwood was drunk, inattentive, or asleep makes little difference to the thousands impacted by the spill. Whatever safety measures, be they an early warning system or a double-hull failed to prevent the spill of an estimated 10.8 million gallons of crude.

On September 1, 2001 the Twin Towers in New York were brought to the ground when two commercial jets, commandeered by cowards, slammed into them and exploded. Systems immediately were jeopardized or failed and the intense heat of the burning jets brought the Towers to the ground killing thousands and disabling the nation.

On April 5, 2010 a devastating explosion in the Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 miners before the heroic efforts of their would-be rescuers were even started. None of the victims were able to make their way to one of the safe rooms or were able to contact anyone on the surface.

A British Petroleum drilling rig explosion on April 20 left 11 workers dead, and the rig's subsequent collapse has unleashed an oil spill that continues to threaten the ecosystems and ruin the economy of the states which border the Gulf of Mexico. None of the multiple shutoff valves or backup systems worked to stem the tide of oil now flowing into the Gulf.

On March 30, 2010 the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, came on line in spectacular fashion with a collision that marked a new beginning for scientist studying the infinitesimal stuff of life. The collider worked pretty much to perfection, although in initial discussions some speculated the reaction could not be controlled and a cataclysm could consume the earth. This concern, however, was not given much weight and indeed proved to be the perpetual "Chicken Little" argument we find in every crowd.

Most of the preceding have things in common: a false sense of security, human involvement, and, arguably with the exception of NASA and the LHC, power and fossil fuel. But the most critical commonality is redundancy.

Think for a moment how many times we hear "fail safe." Some of us, who have been around since Nixon or earlier have heard this assurance from government and scientists and companies for generations. We've heard "fail safe" to the point it's a punch line for those of us with thoughts.

Even as oil spews from the floor of the Gulf I continue to hear news commentators talking about the "fail safe" mechanisms built into the many "redundant safety systems" designed to prevent a catastrophic implosion of a British Petroleum oil rig.

On May 9, 2010, as reported by David Goodhue, AHN News "Tar balls have begun to wash ashore on Dauphin Island in Alabama."

"Fail safe" means cannot fail. A "fail safe" system is a system that cannot fail. The Challenger and Columbia were "fail safe." Apollo 13 was "fail safe." There were backups and contingencies and redundancies that were evaluated, investigated and tested for "every contingency." Except for a short in an oxygen stirring environment. Except for a frozen o-ring. Except for a loose tile.

"Fail safe" is a false sense of security. Everything man has built is "fail safe" until it fails and then it wasn't intended to be used under this circumstance, or that condition or those pressures.

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A writer for over 30 years and political satirist. Of course without a single published piece of merit, which makes me your average American blogger.
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