Thursday, May 06, 2010

An American Chernobyl

[Update June 10: Many people have had this same realization since I published this post. Here is an excellent, detailed summary that details the similarities, with links to resources.]

The drawing of parallels between industrial accidents is a dubious armchair sport, but here the parallels are just piling up and are becoming too hard to ignore:
  • An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 spewed radioactive waste across Europe
  • A recent explosion and sinking of BP's Deepwater Horizon oil drilling platform is spewing heavy oil into the Gulf of Mexico
These accidents were both quite spectacular. At Chernobyl, the force of the explosion, caused by superheated steam inside the reactor, tossed the 2500-tonne reactor lid 10-14 meters into the air where it twirled like a tossed penny and came to rest back on the wrecked reactor. The cloud of superheated vapor then separated into a large volume of hydrogen gas, which detonated, demolishing the reactor building and adjoining structures. At Deepwater Horizon, a blowout of a recently completed oil well sent an uncontrolled burst of oil and gas, pressurized to over 10,000 psi by the 25000-foot depth of the well, up to the drilling platform, where it detonated, causing a fire. The rig then sank, and came to rest in a heap of wreckage on top of the oil well, which continues to spew at least 200,000 gallons of oil a day. Left unchecked, this would amount to 1.7 million barrels of oil per year, for an indefinite duration. This amount of oil may be enough to kill off or contaminate all marine life within the Gulf of Mexico, to foul the coastline throughout the Gulf and, thanks to the Gulf Stream, through much of the Eastern Seaboard, at least to Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and possibly beyond. A few tarballs will probably wash up as far north as Greenland.

The Chernobyl disaster was caused more or less directly by political appointeesm: the people in charge of the reactor control room had no background in nuclear reactor operations or nuclear chemistry, having got their jobs through the Communist Party. They attempted a dangerous experiment, executed it incompetently, and the result was an explosion and a meltdown. The Deepwater Horizon disaster will perhaps be found to have similar causes. BP, which leased and operated Deepwater Horizon, is chaired by one Carl-Henric Svanberg—a man with no experience in the oil industry. The people who serve on the boards of directors of large companies tend to see management as a sort of free-floating skill, unrelated to any specific field or industry, rather similarly to how the Soviet Communist party thought of and tried to use the talents of its cadres. Allegations are already circulating that BP drilled to a depth of 25000 feet while being licensed to drill up to 18000 feet, that safety reviews of technical documents had been bypassed, and that key pieces of safety equipment were not installed in order to contain costs. It will be interesting to see whether the Deepwater Horizon disaster, like the Chernobyl disaster before it, turns out to be the direct result of management decisions made by technical incompetents.

More importantly, the two disasters are analogous in the unprecedented technical, administrative, and political challenges posed by their remediation. In the case of Chernobyl, the technical difficulty stemmed from the need to handle high level radioactive waste. Chunks of nuclear reactor fuel lay scattered around the ruin of the reactor building, and workers who picked them up using shovels and placed them in barrels received a lethal radiation dose in just minutes. To douse the fire still burning within the molten reactor core, bags of sand and boron were dropped into it from helicopters, with lethal consequences for the crews. Eventually, a concrete sarcophagus was constructed around the demolished reactor, sealing it off from the environment. In the case of Deepwater Horizon, the technical difficulty lies with stemming a high-pressure flow of oil, most likely mixed with natural gas, gushing from within the burned, tangled wreck of the drilling platform at a depth of 5000 feet. An effort is currently underway to seal the leak by lowering a 100-ton concrete-and-steel "contraption" onto it from a floating crane and using it to capture and pump out the oil as it leaks out. I think "sarcophagus" sounds better.

The administrative challenge, in the case of Chernobyl, lay in evacuating and resettling large urban and rural populations from areas that were contaminated by the radiation, in preventing contaminated food products from being sold, and in dealing with the medical consequences of the accident, which includes a high incidence of cancer, childhood leukemia and birth defects. The effect of the massive oil spill from Deepwater Horizon is likely to cause massive dislocation within coastal communities, depriving them of their livelihoods from fishing, tourism and recreation. Unless the official efforts to aid this population are uncharacteristically prompt and thorough, their problems will bleed into and poison politics.

The political challenges, in both cases, centered on the inability of the political establishment to acquiesce to the fact that a key source of energy (nuclear power or deep-water oil) relied on technology that was unsafe and prone to catastrophic failure. The Chernobyl disaster caused irreparable damage to the reputation of the nuclear industry and foreclosed any further developments in this area. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is likely to do the same for the oil industry, curtailing any possible expansion of drilling in deep water, where much of the remaining oil is to be found, and perhaps even shutting down the projects that have already started. In turn, this is likely to hasten the onset of the terminal global oil shortage, which the US Department of Energy and the Pentagon have forecast for 2012.

Translate "industrial accident" into Russian and back into English, and what you get is "technogenic catastrophe". This term got a lot of use after the Chernobyl disaster. It is rather more descriptive than the rather flaccid English phrase, and it puts the blame where it ultimately comes to rest in any case: with the technology, and the technologists and politicians who push it. Technology that can and sometimes does fail catastrophically, causing unacceptable levels of environmental devastation, is no good, regardless of how economically necessary it happens to be. It must be shut down. In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, we are already hearing that expansion of deep-water drilling is "dead on arrival". This could be the beginning of the end for the huge but dying beast that is the petrochemical industry, or more such accidents may be required for the realization finally to sink in and the cry of "Shut it down!" to be heard.

The energy industry has run out of convenient, high-quality resources to exploit, and is now forced to turn to resources it previously passed over: poor, dirty, difficult, expensive resources such as tar sands, heavy oil, shale, and deep offshore. Under relentless pressure to do more with less, people are likely to try to cut corners wherever possible, and environmental safety is likely to suffer. Before it finally crashes, the huge final effort to wring the last few drops of energy out of a depleted planet will continue to serve up bigger and bigger disasters. Perhaps the gruesome aftermath of this latest accident will cause enough people to proclaim "Enough! Shut it all down!" But if not, there is always the next one.


fritz said...

well said.

and where to from here? where did Chernobyl fit into the history with Gorbachev and Afghanistan? before? after?

you're still guessing that wind and solar won't become chosen alternates, right?

Unknown said...

Google 'Crisis Response' has a map of the spill (with diff selectable layers):

I happened to be watching in real-time the share price of HPQ today. It was losing 3%, then 4, 5, back to three, then 6, 7, and suddenly 17%. Things straightened out, but I wonder what tomorrow or the next week brings...

Robin Datta said...

"The people who serve on the boards of directors of
large companies tend to see management as a sort of free-floating skill, unrelated
to any specific field or industry".

Unfortunately the same is true in too many fields of management. including national leadership. The electoral process selects for skill sets needed to win elections, producing more often than not officeholders short on the skill set needed for governance, management and leadership. Those quick to learn acquire their skills on-the-job, in the "school of hard knocks".

The people who value a tank of gas - a fillup - more than the environment perhaps vastly outnumber those who concede to the environment a higher priority. That may sustain the "Drill 'bro drill!" attitude.

As an aside. tho USSR was transformed into the FSU about five years after the Chernobyl - wormwood - incident.

Larkin said...

The maniacal cry of "Drill baby drill" illustrates how little people understand that continued increased consumption of petroleum is a dead-end scenario that rushes us towards an unavoidable reckoning that will end in a worldwide disaster.

The population of the world is artificially propped up by petroleum and the only solution is to begin the transitions to any and all alternatives today and favor them over the oil and energy lobbies that now dominate Washington.

Off shore and Arctic oil deposits are money in the bank to be used at some future time when it would be truly appreciated. Instead there is a careless rush to get it to market under the present insanity of wasteful consumerism.

Why aren't we seeing any underwater structural schematics of the situation. Do they think that we are too stupid to understand it?

Andrée Collier Zaleska said...

This does feel like the beginning of the end, but then so did Katrina, and Exxon Valdez, and Chernobyl...

My current favorite sideshow is the spectacle of Americans being asked to send their hair-clippings (and their dog's) to the Gulf to help soak up the oil!

My advice: Tear out your hair and send it to BP execs.

gordonsson said...

Hate to be pedantic, but it would be about 17 million barrel/yr @ 200,000gpd.
I generally agree with the rest, and with the gist of the comments so far.

I work as a data-geek on rigs (some oil & gas, mostly geothermal these days) and have had a pretty good worms-eye view of the process. Drilling, being a geo-technical endeavour, is generally a series of small but perfectly formed disasters, which, normally, are well enough contained that only the investors' bank accounts are hurt.

At the end of a well, there is invariably a rush to get all the service companies off the books ASAP.

The well was at a stage where normally (in my experience) it would have been considered (by TPBP) to be secured, so it is possible that the service personnel charged with keeping track of the critical parameters had already been released and been told get their a**es outta there, hence allowing the influx to the well to be undetected until way too late.

I have no idea exactly what decisions were made when by who, but it is absolutely certain that immense pressure is channeled down the chain to chisel down costs.

Two predictions, for what little they are worth: deepwater drilling will continue (at least outside the US), and there WILL be disasters (for very mundane reasons, and not necessarily confined to deepwater-I've been on some very nasty land jobs where there was a general "thank f** that's over" feeling by the end).

jpwhite said...

Yes, there is always the next one. Over at the LATOC forum they were treating this as something akin to an astroid strike, i.e. "the event" that would put paid to the human future. While I agreed that this was a horrifying circumstance that would likely do immeasurable harm to ecosystems and livelihoods all over the GOM (a place I lived for 30 years, so I feel it personally as well), I felt compelled to respond to the hysteria thusly:

"It's interesting that no one has brought up the fact (unless I missed it) that the Earth's oceans are already full of oil. It's called plastic. Here is surely a demonstration of a particular facet of human nature, the one that makes short-term, time-intensive disasters seem much more dire than the ones that drag on for decades (a good example would be the "dozen trapped miners with a few hours of air" vs. the "hundreds that have dropped dead of black lung over several decades").

I've read enough about the plasticalypse (along with other long-term, perhaps irreversible changes in the oceans) to know that some oceanographers and ecologists have already pronounced the oceans as good as dead. The biosphere, ditto. The human race has likely already committed ecocide over the last couple of centuries, but our short-term consciousness keeps looking for "the event" (as another poster put it)."

I'll stand by that statement, even though the cumulative damage is likely to much greater (by orders of magnitude, perhaps) than was being claimed when I wrote that. We're probably going to see dozens of events like this over the next decade or two, or however long it takes for the wheels to fall off of our industrial civilization.

Knowing that it won't end quickly or painlessly was one reason I found the future described in "The New Age of Sail" believable and compelling. It's also the reason that I staked my future on a boat. I'm wondering, though, whether there will be anyplace left to sail before too long. I know that when I finally circumnavigate (my dream) I won't be going anywhere near the Gulf.

dltrammel said...

Great post.

DeVaul said...

I am glad someone brought up the issue of the floating islands of plastic garbage that now infest our oceans like ozone holes infest the sky. This is another by-product of oil, as it was made from oil and then tossed into the sea from oil tankers -- a double whammy from the oil industry.

I grew up in Lousiana and had cousins in Pensacola. I remember as a child going out to the beach, which was a large sandbar without a single building on it. Only one road and white sand dunes as far as you could see. We swam and played and then went home. We had no need for resorts or hotels or attractions of any kind. The sand and the ocean were enough.

I know others can recall pristine environments in their youth, so I won't belabor the point. For me, though, knowing that the Gulf of Mexico is doomed for the next 10,000 years, that my childhood memories were wiped out first by a swarm of "fun in the sun" tourist industries from up north and now by a giant slick of smelly goo is deeply saddening.

I do not feel sorry for most of the residents there. They catered to the "get rich quick" schemes that destoyed every inch of coastline there, and now they will complain about oil companies after they spent years driving at 90 miles per hour on highways and racetracks and motoring around in deep sea fishing boats and jet skis to entertain northern tourists.

They helped destroy the Gulf every bit as much as BP did. Do not feel sorry for them because they will not learn anything from it and will accept no responsibilty for ruining an entire ecosystem.

The quicker western civilization dies, including the Chinese version, the greater the chance all other life forms will survive.


giordano bruno said...

long term this accident
1) discredits the enthusiasm for USA offshore drilling.
2) discredits the cornucopian claim that there is plenty of oil.
Much of the 'plenty' suggested is very deep offshore.
So the Peak Oil theory is greatly reinforced.
The actual damage may be only a few hundred million in lost fishing, and a (large?) area of destroyed wetlands.
The idealogical damage is greater

Evan S. said...

>> BP, the owner of Deepwater Horizon

BP did not own the Deepwater Horizon. It was owned by Transocean.

Anonymous said...

By the way, Dmitry, listen to Kogda Zakonchitsya Neft'

This could well be a Peak Oil Hymn

DaveW said...

The Gulf oil catastrophe will not stop anything. Faced with the choice between being slightly inconvenienced by driving less and destroying ecosystems, 98% of American and global consumers have shown over and over that convenience wins.

And those who think that people will finally change their ways once it gets "bad enough" should remember the people who live on the garbage dumps in Bangalore and elsewhere, who continue to have children, nonetheless. Humans will continue to try to live (and breed) even under excruciatingly polluted conditions. And addicts are addicts until they either hit rock bottom, go into recovery, or die.

Peddler on the Hoof said...

"nothing like" chernobyl, says man.

ghpacific said...

Quit using disappearing oil for transportation. Use bicycles, etc. We need to save what remains of the oil for pharma and plastics which have less alternatives than oil as their raw material.

Unknown said...

I wish I were making this up. Komsomoloskaya Pravda recently suggested a strategic nuclear explosion to seal the well:

populist said...

hello Mr Orlov,

just wanted to share this youtube clip of a radio show with you, it comes to the same conclusion that you have about the spill being the American Chernobyl..also talks about some worst case scenarios going forward, especially as we approach hurricane season.

Big Oil's Chernobyl part 1

Big Oil's Chernobyl part 2

thanks for your work, I really enjoy reading your blog.

gordonsson said...

I sure hope whoever is suggesing nukes is taking the p**s. The leak is bad, but no matter how bad things are, you always make them worse.

Right now the flow is still partially restricted.
It is highly unlikely that any kind of explosive forming (let alone uncontrolled as per nuking) could swage shut a conduit against 6000-10000psi.

More likely, a nuke would, by destroying all casing within 2000-3000' of the seafloor, cause a vastly increased (and radioactive) oil & gas flow to come up directly through the sea floor.

The rogue well can only be killed from the bottom up, i.e. by a relief well.

How many people do you know that would be prepared to work on a rig with radioactive oil slicks floating around?

By the same token, I would hope that any attempt to pinch off the flow (e.g. junk shot) will fail. If these succeed then 6000-10000si is immediately exerted on the BOP & wellhead. Whist these are rated higher (15000psi), components have already failed. Therefore, any temporary success with stopping the flow at seafloor carry a very high risk of turning a 5000-2500bpd flow into something much worse.

One or other of the relief wells will likey kill it. All the other stuff is activity for the sake of being seen "to be doing something". Attempts to corral the muck are laudable but any attempt at a top-down kill will most likely worsen the situation.

Within 3 to 6 months, the relief wells should stop the spill. In the meantime, the Gulf will just have to "suck it up", as the Brits would say.

Razer said...

"It will be interesting to see whether the Deepwater Horizon disaster, like the Chernobyl disaster before it, turns out to be the direct result of management decisions made by technical incompetents."

"About 11 hours before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, a disagreement took place between the top manager for oil giant BP PLC on the drilling rig and his counterpart for the rig's owner, Transocean Ltd., concerning the final steps in shutting down the nearly completed well, according to a worker's sworn statement."
Source, Crooks and Liars/WSJ

Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Hi, I've created a video detailing the true scope of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill:

Please share it with as many people as you can.

Thank you for blogging about this catastrophe.

Revelation 8:8-9
And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood;
And the third part of the creatures which were in the sea, and had life, died;

Larkin said...

I watched CBS morning news report seriously but with optimism about BP's efforts in controlling the continuing oil spill. Then in a more somber tone, reflect on the government's unfortunate and inadequate efforts in regards to the situation. You wouldn't be able to see it in print but it was done with voice inflection and subtle body language. Is BP an advertising sponsor for this network? I wouldn't be surprised..

This of course is trivial next to this catastrophe but it shows influence and manipulation under even the worst of situations.

Unknown said...

"Bartender, I just need one more drink, and then I'll go sober.  I promish."

DA English said...

I agree with what Giordando said.

If you haven't watched it yet, go to the 60 Minutes website on and watch the interview with one of the guys who worked on the rig. It's clear BP and TransOcean had no respect whatsoever for safety even after things were clearly pointed out for them.

Jeffrey from New York said...


Today as I was thinking about the Gulf Spill, the phrase "American Chernobyl" popped into my head ... I decided to search online to see who else might have drawn the same parallel between the two disasters and I found your blog.

I am deeply impressed by your observations which, in my opinion, accurately identify the apocalyptic aspect of this event. And in kindred spirit, I'd like to add one or two further remarks:

The similarities between the attitudes of yesteryear's Communist Party cadres and today's corporate managers are staggering. Power and responsibility flow overwhelmingly to those "types" who deliver glittering "metrics" while blandly ignoring ever riskier consequences. Just as true on the sales floor at a global retailer (where I recently concluded eight years of employment) as on the ocean floor with BP et al.

In my opinion, your characterization of the technology involved being "unsafe and prone to catastrophic failure" only scratches the surface of the fix we're in: ALL technology is unsafe and prone to catastrophic failure.

The reason all current technologies MUST fail is because they ALL emanate from lopsided human attitudes: We invest in new technology to make money FIRST ... then, (possibly) to serve humanity SECOND.

Mankind has victimized itself into an upside-down psychology ... if we really wish to see the rampant perniciousness of ALL current technologies, we really don't have to look very far.

keyboardcat said...

Dimitry - you mentioned in your post that "this is likely to hasten the onset of the terminal global oil shortage, which the US Department of Energy and the Pentagon have forecast for 2012.". Can you post a link to that forecast? I can't seem to find anything where the USDOE or Pentagon has done anything LIKE agree that a terminal oil shortage is possible.

Montag said...

I like this analysis very much.