Belmont Club

In peril of the sea

Twenty are dead and 21 injured out of a crew of 208 in a Russian nuclear sub accident. The reactor section is reportedly normal. The incicent occurred during the Russian Pacific Fleet’s exercises at sea. The class of the submarine has not been given, but 208 persons is a large number. The BBC says the accident was caused by a failure in the fire-extinguishing system of the vessel. Dockyard workers were said to be aboard and this may account for the size of the complement. Former Spook says the vessel may have been an Akula-type sub that had been leased to the Indian Navy.

Initial reports suggest the mishap began with the “unsanctioned functioning of the fire extinguishing systems.” The Russian spokesman didn’t explain what that means, but it suggests that crew members were caught in spaces where oxygen was in short supply; without access to emergency breathing equipment–and training in how to use it–survival would be difficult.

Neither human nor physical systems work perfectly or consistently. The more complex a system the greater the chance that some “emergent” event — caused by the unforseen interaction of parts — can take place. It’s ironic that the accident may have been caused by a malfunction in a safety system. Charles Perrow in his book, Normal Accidents, argues that our desire to make things safer and more predictable can actually increase risk.

Charles Perrow argues that the conventional engineering approach to ensuring safety–building in more warnings and safeguards–fails because systems complexity makes failures inevitable. He asserts that typical precautions, by adding to complexity, may help create new categories of accidents. (At Chernobyl, tests of a new safety system helped produce the meltdown and subsequent fire.)

We try to reduce risk in complex social systems through government regulation and social programs. But sometimes these regulations and programs become a source of risk themselves. For example the social security and retirement systems which were originally created to provide a secure future may be on their way to a meltdown. It would be ironic if whole populations were impoverished by the very precautions taken to avert this outcome.


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