Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Nuclear Power and Molasses:

Anniversary of a Lethal Molasses Spill

I was reminded this morning that today is the 100th anniversary of a lethal accident in Boston involving--yes, molasses.  The Great Molasses Flood of 1919 may sound quaint and silly today, but was, in its time, a significant accident that triggered changes in construction requirements and laws requiring professional certification of engineers. 

This sad anniversary reminded me yet again of how rules and regulations, onerous as they may seem, often trace their origins to the tragedies that occurred in the days before society realized the dangers of some of its activities.  I have written previously about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 and the ensuing developments in fire codes. 

And both of these historic events, as well as others, always make me reflect on how we can anticipate the potential for accidents as we develop and deploy new technologies and put the right preventive measures in place before anything happens, rather than after. 

It seems to be an issue that arises in every area of human endeavor.  After all, who would have imagined that molasses might cause such a deadly accident? 

Today, we face other technological developments that raise similar questions:  What are the potential risks from driverless cars?  How can we assure that GMOs are safe?  Is fracking a miracle development to extract more fossil fuels from the earth, or are we going to trigger earthquakes?

The nuclear power industry has long grappled with such questions in relation to the use of the atom, and some of the techniques developed to analyze different nuclear accident scenarios, such as probabilistic risk assessment, have been adopted by other industries as well. 

That is not to say that the nuclear field has all the answers.  Indeed, the issue of risk from technologies seems to be a continually evolving one.  Population growth in an area, rises in sea level, changes in weather patterns, competing societal requirements, and more all affect the calculation of risk from nuclear power, as well as from other technologies.

And the answers are never simple and never perfect.  Some answers require costly systems to prevent or mitigate accidents, or siting restrictions, or other constraints.  And we continually seem to discover new issues, or new aspects of issues we thought we understood. 

These are not issues that can be resolved in a blog.  But the fact that this is the anniversary of an event that sparked a lot of change in its time does deserve mention in a blog on nuclear power issues.  At a minimum, it reminds us that society has dealt with the issues created by "new" technologies (or, perhaps in the case of molasses, a growing industry) for a long time, and it gives me hope that we will continue to do so with the technologies of today.


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