Salvation by productive paranoia

April 29, 2014

Any system that provides a lot of benefits, uses a lot of energy, or otherwise does things on a grand scale is also a monsterous trap. If, as an engineer or manager, you haven’t seen the trap, you haven’t looked hard enough.

The sales troops have Murphy’s Law – “Anything that can fail will fail, and it will do so during the sales demonstration.” This is a handy and entertaining statement of the universe’s perversity, but not a preventive tool. Designers, producers and operators of major equipment need to maintain an attitude of paranoia when they ply their respective trades. Each of us should ask one question as he or she prepares to wrap up any equipment design, machine build or operating plan. That question is, “What would be the most dangerous, demoralizing, humiliating or otherwise humbling failure or unintended consequence of this work I am proposing to deliver to my client, and have I done all I could to prevent it?” Extra points are awarded for taking into account nature’s love of irony.

The answer to this paranoid question, had it been posed regarding the 6 Fukushima reactors might have been, “We could have an electrical power failure across all reactors, a total of 4.7 gigawatts generating power, that would prevent us from operating cooling pumps or reactor controls.  And that could be followed by a failure that prevented our diesel backup generators from providing power for the same cooling and controls.” That would certainly be the ultimate system failure, guaranteed to provide multiple meltdowns and subsequent radiation releases.

Let’s see, six reactors go splat at the same moment? Not likely with independent failures. Add the backup power supplies, and we’re talking about a very rare set of simultaneous events. But what could cause a set of simultaneous failures that were not independent?

The answer might have continued, “Well, that would take a huge earthquake followed by a flood. Now that you mention it, the backup generators are all located in basements. And the station is located in one of the world’s most seismically active regions. Oh yeah, it’s on the beach.” Nukes are almost always on beaches, aren’t they? They need cooling water.

There it is. When the engineers get a little paranoid, we can see the dominoes lined up to hurt people and make us look stupid. The question has to be asked early, though. The basement generators at Fukushima were called into question during construction by installation engineers, and the flooding issue was raised by the American Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1990, but that was too late. The moment for productive paranoia had passed.

Similarly, there have been some engineers and maintenance people in West Virginia in recent years who missed the magic moment for productive paranoia in the layout of piping for coal slurry and surfactant flow. The same question, “What could hurt people and make us look really stupid?” went unasked at the magic moment.

These people knew that single valves next to waterways are inadequate to control huge amounts of pollutants. They knew that big tanks can’t be protected by small overflow dykes. Had they asked the paranoid question they’d have seen the traps they had set for themselves. When they failed to ask, their friends and neighbors paid the price.

Any system that provides a lot of benefits, uses a lot of energy, or otherwise does things on a grand scale is also a monsterous trap. If, as an engineer or manager, you haven’t seen the trap, you haven’t looked hard enough. Indulge in a little productive paranoia. Invite the hardest-bitten, crusty old techies you can find and ask ‘em, “Where and how is this thing going to get me?” You might not enjoy the answer, but it’ll beat finding out the hard way.

Strategic Maintenance

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