One of the narratives we hear after a major disaster such as the earthquake in Japan, a hurricane like Katrina, or an oil well disaster like Deepwater Horizon, is that no one could have predicted that such an event could cause such damage. In the first few hours after the occurrence, we get reassuring statements from the company spokespeople saying that all the required safety features were in place and that the engineers have taken every precaution and there’s really no need to panic… but let’s just evacuate everyone within a 20-mile radius just to be safe. And, they add, there is certainly no need for any more government regulation or oversight. Why, that would add to the cost of running the plant, and we’d have to pass that on to the consumer who is already overburdened with the cost of needless regulation, right?
Except we know that nuclear plants and oil rigs are supposed to be designed for the worst-case scenarios, especially when you build them in places that are famous for seismic activity like Japan or fragile ecosystems like the Gulf of Mexico. But even if they are, there are still those occasions where the systems don’t work because the company hasn’t been maintaining them or someone has been paying off the inspectors to let the mechanism repaired with duct tape and baling wire slide by. Or maybe the plant is old and has withstood other temblors in the past and is destined to be decommissioned in the next year or so.
It’s almost trite to say that all the best engineering and redundant safety features don’t mean much when there’s the human factor brought into the equation. So in spite of all the precautions and reassurances, shit still happens. People screw up or pay others off or couldn’t be bothered to follow up on the list of recommendations from the auditors; who’s gonna know? Well, for one thing, those of us who live twenty miles from a major nuclear generating plant that has been in operation for nearly forty years might care about how things are going there. When it comes down to the battle between human nature and Mother Nature, experience has taught us who wins.