Nuclear Safety and Leadership

Although not political in nature, this post is being made in response to a current political issue in Canada. I don't want to get into politics in this blog, but sometimes politicians and government give us very good fodder for thoughts on decision making and leadership, which is the real reason for this post.

The upshot of the issue in question was that a quasi-independent commission designed to oversee the nuclear industry in Canada ordered the shutdown of the Chalk River nuclear reactor because a safety upgrade was not made in a timely manner.

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? After all, who wants an unsafe nuclear reactor in their backyard?

Turns out there is something else you need to know, however. This particular safety device is a third level backup system (the first 2 backups have to fail first) in order to prevent the reactor, not from blowing up, but from shutting down.

See, there are basically 2 ways to make a reactors - grossly oversimplifying things, the first way is to create a nuclear meltdown or explosion, then attempt to control that explosion through containment and cooling. This was the Chernobyl method. The problem is, if something goes wrong, the meltdown or explosion happens - oops.

The second method, which Canada uses, continually forces the reaction to take place. If something goes wrong, the reaction stops and the reactor shuts down - basically a dead-mans switch. Naturally, this method is far safer, since your main concern is keeping it going, rather than glowing in the dark.

Here is the second thing you need to know - this particular reactor has a very special job. You know how some reactors can make things like materials for nuclear weapons? Well, reactors can make other stuff, too. This one makes special medical isotopes. These isotopes are used to detect cancer, among other things.

The reason you can use them for this purpose is that they have a very limited shelf-life - they stop being radioactive very quickly, thereby making it relatively safe to inject into people to find problems. Because they decay so fast, you can't store them - they have to be constantly made. This reactor makes almost two-thirds of the entire worlds supply.

Because of how critical it is for this reactor to stay up and running, a third level, earthquake-proof backup was required to be installed. For reasons that are not currently clear, the company running the reactor delayed doing this. As a result, the commission shut the reactor down for not performing up to safety standards, thus causing a worldwide shortage of these medical isotopes.

When told to turn it back on, the President of the Commission, Linda Keen, refused to do so, saying that it's her job to shut down reactors that are not safe. The Canadian Parliament had to pass a law to force it back on, and just yesterday, fired her. There is now a big hue and cry over whether this was the right thing to do, which I won't get into here.

Let's look at this for a moment. I don't care about accusations of political partisanship, or any of that stuff - let's just look at the decision that was made to shut down the reactor, and why.

The reactor was shut down because of a safety issue. What was the safety issue? That unless the backup was in place, the reactor might shut down! So the disaster that these rules were in place to prevent was a reactor shutdown. What was the response to placing the reactor in a state where a disastrous shutdown might happen? To shut down the reactor.


The response to the possibility a disaster might happen was to deliberately create the very same disaster! From "might" to "will".

This is what happens when people don't think about the big picture. This is the equivalent of fining someone for being broke, or shooting someone as punishment for wearing a bulletproof vest, because you are worried about them getting shot.

The spirit of the law was to prevent the safety issue of a reactor shut down. The letter of the law said that you should shut down the reactor if there is a safety issue. These goals are contradictory in this case. So, what do you do?

Well, you could play it safe and follow the letter of the law, but that's not leadership. Leadership is looking at what the real goal is and accomplishing it.


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