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The oil spill reminds us that "Fail-safe systems" do, in fact, fail with horrific consequences

Posted by Ira Helfand, MD on May 5, 2010

The Non Proliferation Treaty review conference begins this week in New York against the back drop of one of the worst environmental disasters in decades, and the ongoing oil leak in the Gulf should give the nuclear negotiators at the UN much to think about.

During an interview on NPR this week, the CEO of BP kept referring to the “Fail-safe” system that they had built to guarantee that there would never be a catastrophic leak. Finally the NPR host interrupted him, “‘Fail-safe’—isn’t that the system that failed?” Yes, the CEO agreed, but it was an “unprecedented” break down that no one imagined could happen.

The BP leak in the Gulf is not only an ecological disaster which exposes the folly of “Drill, baby, drill!” It also speaks powerfully to the need to eliminate the world’s nuclear arsenals.

The US and Russia continue to maintain thousands of nuclear weapons, more than 2000 of them on high alert status able to be launched in minutes. We are told that this incredible deployment posture is safe and stable. “Fail-safe” systems are in place. It would take an “unprecedented” break down of these systems to allow an accidental or unauthorized launch of these weapons. Exactly.

The Russian and US military have undoubtedly built the best system they possibly could to protect against accidental war. The problem is that human beings, and the technical systems we build, are fallible. The chance of failure may be very low in any one year, but it is not zero.

The cost of the well failure in the Gulf may be in the billions of dollars before this spill is fully contained. The cost of an accidental nuclear war might well be the end of human civilization. It is a price we can not afford.


Anne npt-tv said ..

Please also check out our video with Ira Helfand straight from the NPT-Review Conference on the same topic:

May 24, 2010
John Rachow PhD MD said ..

Much of the same could be said about nuclear power plants which have demonstrable flaws and failures in complex safeguard systems designed by humans. The difficulty of making policy decisions based on the complex calculus of proceeding on an very expensive endeavor that entails a relatively low risk of a catastrophic failure. I expect that the planners tend to simply discount a possible unlikely outcome simply on the basis that it is unlikely.

May 6, 2010
Madeline Riley said ..

I agree with the doctor something must be done before it's too late.

May 5, 2010

Comments closed.