Saturday, November 28, 2015

Climate Change, The Nuclear Option, And Organizations

With the Paris conference on climate change beginning in two days, and with many thinking that this is the world's last realistic chance to plot a path toward survival, a venture capitalist named Peter Thiel makes a case for nuclear energy in the NYT.

He is not wrong. The overwhelming issue of our time is, will mankind survive? In my early lifetime the threat was the Nazis – yes, mankind would have survived, but the history would be troubled. Then the threat was nuclear weapons, and truth be told, it still is. On The Beach was not unreasonable fiction, except how beautiful Ava Gardner was, and I guess Gregory Peck. But the threats are accelerating. nClimate change, né global warming, is arguably the most serious of all. James Lovelock sees disaster but not total annihilation. There will still be “mating pairs in the Arctic,” he says, which is less than totally reassuring.

What is behind it all is the exponential expansion of the anthropocene age. ( I have used the image of the beehive before, and it comes to mind again. When humans crawl all over the world and all over each other, they stay alive by an interconnectedness that works for a limited time. But nothing stays the same for long, and if you are precarious you eventually fall, and that's inevitable with our exponential-ness. The only alternative is planning, and restraint, and a sense of all being into it together. Good luck with that.

Nonetheless, we keep trying, and nuclear is an important option, as Thiel says. Years ago, when it became apparent that we had a problem and my Dad had not yet died, he and I discussed it in a couple of words, which was all we needed since we tended to think alike. All of his professional life as a neurosurgeon, my Dad had looked at dangerous operations and unpalatable choices, delayed decisions and followed cases assiduously until a choice became clear and sometimes inevitable. And when we talked, even in his decline, he faced the problems of the earth with the same coldly reasonable calculations that he used in judging the advisability to operate. So when I asked him, “Dad, what do you think about climate change and energy?” he responded, “I think we have to go nuclear.” Which was just what I thought, too. I figured, you just have to be careful, find the right way to do it, and put the radioactive debris in the right spot – I figured, send it to outer space, but then, I tend to be a risk taker.

The problem was, however, that we were both thinking like doctors, like Lone Rangers, which is what old fashioned doctors tend to do. We were thinking, get your best doc and go on in and be careful to do it right, concentrate, do it right.

But that way of thinking is a mistake. Nuclear power can't be operated by a Lone Ranger. Nuclear power has to be run by a large organization; as a matter of fact, since the world is a big place, it has to be run by many large organizations. So it's not an individual challenge, it's an organizational challenge, which is a horse of a different color.

Earlier this year we visited Japan and, as is my custom when traveling, I read the local English language press. There was an article about the Fukushima accident of 2011. I remembered that it was clear early on that Tepco, the utility company that ran it, had disingenuously reported about and dealt with the accident, not to mention having made mistakes with the initial design. It seemed to be a poorly run organization with strong political support charged with what could be a dangerous mission. Now the Japan Times reported that no significant changes in administration have been made. I read that a citizens' committee – a citizens committee! What a sign of entrenched bureaucracy! -- had twice (twice!) recommended that the top officials of Tepco should be tried for ineptitude and negligence. They reasoned that punishment would have a deterrent effect in the future, and thus perhaps change organizational behavior. But the article reported that twice had this recommendation has been dismissed by the establishment prosecutors.

It reminded me of the investigation of Chernobyl, which found that political appointments had so infested the organization that it was non-functional. To the Russians' credit, they made the investigation, just as the Japanese did. But the consequences for personnel were few; after all, these were favored apparatchiks who had been placed there in the first place.

Here's the point: you can build organizations for a purpose and get impressive success. You can win World War II, go to the moon, build the 50's Yankees. But then, over time, organizations decline. They just do. Guardians of nuclear missiles in North Dakota get lazy and drunk and no checks are made on the missiles. NASA leaders dismiss warnings from their intimidated scientists that the O-rings might not work at low temperatures. CDC forgets to safeguard the smallpox vials. Achievement organizations become blame organizations, as incentives shift from high accomplishment to avoiding blame, where personnel shift from dream-seekers to get-a-job-and-get-promoted seekers. It's just the natural history of organizations.

So as the VC Peter Thiel touts nuclear as the answer, he thinks technically, not organizationally. VC's think about starting a company and selling it, usually, not operating it into perpetuity. Could you build nuclear plants all over the world that would never fail, or if they failed, would have damage contained? Maybe. Computers have become very powerful. But there are still operators all over to oversee the plants, and if they are not unqualified apparatchiks, or Tepco bureaucrats, they can still be Homer Simpsons. 

Thiel thinks that the downsides of accidents have been exaggerated, and that side effects can be contained. Maybe he's right. Maybe my father and I were right. Or maybe we need nuclear not as a permanent solution, but as a bridge to a future technology that would truly work automatically. And maybe running the risk is better than simply continuing on as we are on the road to mating pairs in the Arctic. And maybe Space X can take our nuclear debris on a quest to find dark matter.

But in the meantime, if nuclear turns out to be the necessary risk we take, let's not just concentrate on the technology. Let's pay as much attention to advance organizational theory as to engineering theory. That could be the biggest challenge.

Budd Shenkin

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