Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Friday, September 3, 2010

INPO - the magic bullet?

Saw a string of articles in mid-August about INPO (Institute of Nuclear Power Operators) as a potential breakthrough model for improving offshore rig safety. Presidential commission chair Bill Reilly says he likes the idea. INPO harnesses the "enlightened self interest" of the nuclear industry to assist with some self-policing, since all operators are going to be threatened by one disaster. INPO reviews each power reactor every two years and delivers a confidential report to the operator that can be blistering. All in all, INPO has proved its worth.

An INPO-like group for offshore oil is worth considering as an adjunct to regulation by a non-industry-controlled agency, but there would be problems in transferring the model to offshore oil and it's not a miracle worker. Two words to make the point that INPO can't do everything: the Davis-Besse nuclear power plant at Oak Harbor, Ohio. In 2002 maintenance work to check nozzles at a difficult-to-reach portion of the reactor pressure vessel at Davis-Besse coincidentally revealed that boric acid corrosion had over the course of years eaten a football-sized hole through more than six inches of steel, leaving less than half an inch of stainless steel to contain the steam pressure inside.

This was an extremely serious lapse in safety by the operator FirstEnergy, despite multiple warnings that boric acid corrosion if neglected could cause a loss of coolant accident. It was coincidence that caught the problem, not INPO or the NRC.

INPO visits have merit because they offer more expertise and more independence than the NRC or most companies have been able to muster, but they can't substitute for what the operator should be doing.

The other limitation of the INPO model when it comes to deepwater oil is the difficulty of cross-inspection by an outside industry team. How would such a team evaluate a new combination of methods, never tried on any rig before? How would they have been able to comment on the maintenance needs of MUX-style blowout preventers versus hydraulic ones, when the former came into use?

Compared to the deepwater oil play, boiling water reactors and pressurized water reactors are a mature technology. In deepwater exploration and production the methods are changing all the time, the operating environment is dynamic rather than controlled, and much of the equipment is inaccessible to inspection.

1 comment:

  1. Some of us are wondering if energy companies should be required to have outside insurance. The thought behind that is to have independent sets of eyes examining equipment & procedures. I have concern that some of the recent energy related disasters could have been prevented if day to day operations & procedures would have to be justified to an external auditor.