Diaper liner, sawdust, golf balls and shredded tires — these are some of the items used to try and contain the oil and nuclear disasters that marked the end of this century’s first decade and the start of the second.
Sawdust and absorbent polymer were employed to plug radioactive water leaks at Japan’s Fukushima atomic station after it was wrecked by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011. Didn’t work. BP Plc tried golf balls and rubber scrap in 2010 to plug its Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico in what became the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. Didn’t work, either.
Chucking diapers and golf balls at multibillion dollar calamities shows methods to deal with failure are primitive at best even as the global hunt for energy enters new frontiers of risk. Disasters beyond the coping abilities of a single company — or even a country — have prompted suggestions that a global body with military-scale technical resources is needed.
“We need an international agency that specializes in stuff like this,” Andrew DeWit, a professor of political economy at Tokyo’s Rikkyo University, said in an interview. “World armies and navies could form the basis for such a task force, being the only organizations with the infrastructure and manpower to cope.”
Rising demand for energy is pushing oil drillers into remote and deeper waters from the Arctic and Africa to offshore Brazil. While nuclear power is falling out of favor in the U.S. and Europe, earthquake-prone China is building 29 reactors, the most of any country, to add to the 17 it already operates, according to the World Nuclear Association.
“There’s more and more pressure to take risks, and when you do, you are leaving yourself open to black swan events,” said Gerald Graham, who assisted Canada’s response to the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and runs Worldocean Consulting in Victoria, British Columbia. “In extremely remote areas, the risks become greater and the chances of a spill or blowout increase.”
After a tsunami from the Japan quake knocked out power at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima station, engineers resorted to makeshift pumps and fire hoses to get water into the overheating reactor cores in a failed attempt to prevent the meltdown of three reactors. The radiation leaks forced the evacuation of 160,000 people.
When BP’s leased Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico killing 11 workers, the company used so-called “junk shots” of golf balls and scrap rubber in a failed attempt to plug the 50-million barrel oil field.
Legendary oil-well firefighter Paul “Red” Adair used junk shots to help extinguish Kuwaiti well fires set by Saddam Hussein’s retreating troops in 1991. Yet Adair, depicted in John Wayne’s 1968 film “Hellfighters,” used the technique on land, not almost a mile under the ocean.
Macondo gushed about 4.9 million barrels of crude into the sea from April 20 till when it was capped on July 15 by a stack of valves inserted over the top. The leak was finally sealed in September by drilling a second well into Macondo to pump in mud and concrete. The disaster will cost BP more than $40 billion in cleanup costs and damages. London-based BP spokesman David Nicholas declined to comment for this story.
“The risks are increasing rapidly as we go ever deeper,” said Charles Perrow, a professor emeritus at Yale University who studied the BP spill and Japan crisis as a specialist in industrial accidents. “Really large disasters aren’t that frequent, so preparing for them is difficult, almost an afterthought.”
In the nuclear industry, the Fukushima meltdowns mean Asia joins two of the world’s other continents as a site of a major civil atomic accident. The others are the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union and the partial reactor meltdown at Three Mile Island in the U.S. in 1979.
Regulators have failed to require oil and gas explorers to have sufficient plans to respond to crises, said Tina Hunter, director of the Center for International Minerals and Energy Law at the University of Queensland in Brisbane.
“We absolutely need an independent international body that plays a leading role,” said Hunter, who has advised governments on oil regulations and studied the BP disaster. “There need to be new methods and new responses for new areas that should be tested prior to full-scale exploration,” she said. “Until they do that, they shouldn’t be drilling.”
Regulators and energy companies have taken steps to try to avoid a repeat of the Macondo disaster.
Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron Corp., Royal Dutch Shell Plc and ConocoPhillips committed $1 billion to design a system to contain deepwater spills in the Gulf. The group they formed, Marine Well Containment Co., completed an initial system in 2011 and is developing technology for use in waters as deep as 10,000 feet, its website shows.
Marine Well Containment referred questions to Oil Spill Response Ltd., an industry-owned group with more than 160 members ranging from Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to Tullow Oil Plc. Oil Spill declined to comment on its activities in an e-mailed response. It provides equipment and international support to help companies respond to oil spills, according to its website.
Drilling regulations changed after Macondo as did rules on maintenance and testing of equipment and blow-out preventers on drilling rigs, said Kevin Robison, general manager of production facilities at Helix Energy Solutions, which tackles oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico.
“So all these variables are positive changes to make the industry and drilling safer,” he said in a Sept. 20 phone interview from Houston. Helix’s containment equipment should be able to respond to a spill in a couple of days, he said.
These efforts are mostly focused on the Gulf of Mexico, where output from federal waters accounted for about 20 percent of U.S. oil production in 2012, and which has a massive energy infrastructure and response capability.
Elsewhere problems can quickly cascade when accidents occur in harsher, more remote areas, said Graham, the consultant in Canada, who’s concerned the industry is focused more on “putting out the last fire” than preparing for the next.
“It’s reached the point you have to ask yourself, ‘Are we not testing fate a little too much?'” Graham said.
Environmental groups have criticized plans by companies including Shell and OAO Gazprom to explore the Arctic for oil and gas, saying spills above the Arctic circle would be almost impossible to clean up. The Hague-based Shell halted operations off Alaska after accidents in 2012.
In recognition of the growing risk, an international conference for oil and gas regulators is scheduled for next month in Perth, Western Australia. The theme: preventing the next “black swan, a large-scale event that is unforeseen and potentially catastrophic,” according to the Australian regulator’s website.
Before Fukushima, Chernobyl was ranked as the world’s worst nuclear accident. Russia offered its experience from dealing with Chernobyl to help Japan with the Fukushima calamity, said Vladimir Asmolov, first deputy director general of Rosenergoatom, the state-owned Russian nuclear utility. Talks with Japan continue, said Asmolov, who added:
“In our globalized nuclear industry we don’t have national accidents, they are all international.”
–With assistance from Jacob Adelman in Tokyo. Editors: Peter Langan, Todd White