Black Swan

Toxic Tornado

When a nuclear reactor melts down due to a powerful tornado, deadly contamination rains down on a metropolitan area.
By: | August 4, 2014 • 9 min read

It is a warm, humid spring day in Dallas/Fort Worth when strong thunderstorms begin to develop alongside a high-altitude weather system that includes strong winds and convective energy coming from the Rocky Mountains.

By mid-afternoon, the atmosphere reaches a tipping point. A massive supercell thunderstorm along the weather front produces large, damaging hail and what is later designated as an EF5 tornado, with winds in excess of 200 mph.

The most recent tornado of this size as designated by the National Weather Service was on May 20, 2013, when an EF5 struck Moore, Okla., killing 24 people, flattening neighborhoods and schools, and injuring more than 350 people.

This Texas tornado is much, much worse.

Video: An EF5 tornado in May 2013 flattened much of Moore, Okla.

Moving in the usual southwest to northeast direction, it creates a damage path about 1 mile wide and nearly 200 miles long, and directly strikes the Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant in Glen Rose, Texas, about 40 miles west of Fort Worth and 60 miles west of Dallas.

The power plant’s reactor was built to withstand winds up to 300 mph, but it can’t withstand what happens after the tornado throws around multiple gas-filled tanker trucks, which explode and kill numerous workers.

Matthew Nielsen, director of Americas product management at RMS, created the model for our Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant black swan scenario.

Matthew Nielsen, director of Americas product management at RMS, created the model for our Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant black swan scenario.

Debris fills the air as the powerful winds destroy much of the plant’s emergency equipment, making it impossible to maintain proper conditions and temperature within the reactor. The remaining power plant workers feverishly try to manually shut down the nuclear reactor before it melts down. They can’t.

When the reactor’s heat exceeds the ability of the plant’s processes to cool it down, radioactive gases begin to snake their way into the funnel stacks. The radioactive contamination is carried by the ferocious winds directly toward Dallas/Fort Worth.

Communication fails as area power lines go down, so it is difficult to warn the 7 million residents of the Metroplex, as Dallas/Fort Worth is known. Residents know the tornado has been sighted and try to prepare, but they don’t know that deadly airborne toxins are being carried toward them.

The Damage

About 10,000 homes and 700 commercial structures in the direct path of the tornado are completely destroyed and another 35,000 suffer damage, according to a model built by RMS. Roofs are ripped off apartment houses and multi-family dwellings. Vehicles are tossed around like toys, and with the storm striking at rush hour, workers on the roads are exposed to flying debris and high winds.

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Even with residents sheltering in basements and safe rooms, fatalities reach into the 500-700 range — putting this event in line to be the deadliest tornado in U.S. history, after the Tri-State tornado of 1925, which killed 695 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

But it is the unseen radioactive contamination that ultimately makes the deadliest mark on the area.

Immediate fatalities from radiation poisoning number about two dozen, but as the contaminated rainfall seeps into the ground soil and water supply, the long-term health of the residents — and their descendants — is jeopardized. So, too, are the cattle and other agricultural products of Texas, which leads the nation in the number of ranches and farms it holds.

Chernobyl and Fukushima are the only events of a similar nature, even though the United States has seen its own recent near misses.

The radioactivity causes large swaths of area to be cordoned off, making it difficult to repair transmission and power lines as well as homes and businesses.

“The hard truth is that many businesses will close and many people will move from the area,” said Todd Macumber, president of international risk services, Hub International.

Chernobyl and Fukushima are the only events of a similar nature, even though the United States has seen its own recent near misses.

In 2011, a tornado knocked out power to the Browns Ferry Nuclear Power Plant near Huntsville, Ala., requiring the shut down of its three reactors. The plant fired up backup diesel generators until power was restored. The storm also disabled the plant’s sirens, which are needed to warn nearby residents in a crisis.

That same year, a tornado barely missed damaging 2.5 million pounds of radioactive waste at the Surrey Power Station in southeastern Virginia, although it touched down in the plant’s electrical switchyard and disabled power to the cooling pumps. The operators needed to activate backup diesel generators to run the two reactors until power was restored.

Twenty-eight years after the radioactive disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, some parts of the Ukraine remain a toxic wasteland. And in Japan, an initial evacuation area of about 2 miles surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant was soon widened to about 12.5 miles.

About 300 tons of  highly radioactive water has leaked from storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

About 300 tons of highly radioactive water has leaked from storage tanks at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

Now, three years after three of Fukushima’s six reactors melted down, the area is still unlivable and 40 miles away, diagnoses in children of thyroid cancer, which is caused by radiation poisoning, are skyrocketing, according to some reports.

Nearly 16,000 people died in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan, causing the meltdown. About 160,000 people were evacuated, 130,000 buildings were destroyed and $210 billion in damage was sustained.

The Texas scenario has a lot of variables, said Matthew Nielsen, director of Americas product management at RMS, who created the model for our Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant black swan scenario.

The likelihood of a tornado, with thunderstorms and hail, causing massive structural damage is about 1 in 200 years, he said. Such an event would result in at least $20 billion in insured losses and uninsured losses of about the same amount.

But a tornado following the exact path as this scenario — striking the power plant and heading into the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex — has a much, much smaller chance — about 1 in 10,000 years.

“Given the fact that tornadoes are very rare, it isn’t something that I think people should be screaming and running around frantically about,” Nielsen said. “But it’s certainly something that could happen.”

As for losses due to the radiation? “There’s not a lot of historical data points that we can confidently say that that portion would be x or y billion,” he said.

The Recovery

Any rebuilding will be delayed by the threat posed by radioactive contamination, which may spread over a large area via the thunderstorms and storm water runoff.

From an insurance perspective, all personal and commercial lines of insurance have a nuclear energy hazard exclusion. American Nuclear Insurers (ANI) provides third-party liability insurance for all power reactors in the United States.

“We are responsible for the insurance coverage protecting the operators from claims alleging bodily injury or property damage offsite from [radioactive] materials,” said Michael Cass, vice president and general counsel at ANI, a joint underwriting association with 20 insurance company members.

082014_02_cs_tornado_nuclear350pxNEWThe ANI was created under the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 and provides a primary policy limit of $375 million for claims due to offsite consequences from the release of radioactive materials from the 100 operating nuclear power plants in the United States. It also covers some plants that are shut down or in the process of being decommissioned, he said.

The ANI also covers costs related to emergency response and evacuation, including food, clothing and shelter, he said.

The joint underwriting association also administers an additional excess layer of about $13.2 billion, the costs of which would be borne by the power plant operators, and would be apportioned equally among them.

For any claims above $13.6 billion (which includes both the primary and excess layers), the Price-Anderson Act requires the U.S. Congress to “take steps to come up with a scheme to provide full compensation to the public and to continue claims payments,” Cass said.

“They could assess or tax the energy industry in some fashion or form. It doesn’t say that specifically, but that is what is alluded to.”

None of the insurance companies that are ANI members would be adversely affected if such a black swan event were to occur, he said.

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“There would be a loss reserve recorded on their balance sheets, per participation in our pool, but we do have funds set aside for these catastrophic events where we wouldn’t be requiring any additional funds,” Cass said.

Damage to the power plant itself would be covered by Nuclear Electric Insurance Ltd., which insures electric utilities and energy companies in the United States. Current limits are $1.5 billion per site on the primary program, and up to $1.5 billion per site in its excess program.

Allan Koenig, vice president, corporate communications at Energy Future Holdings, which operates Comanche Peak, said the plant is robustly protected. It has two independent systems that can provide off-site power as well as backup diesel generators, to allow the units to be safety shut down in the event of natural catastrophes.

He also noted the plant has safety shields for fuel storage casks, a 45-inch-thick steel-reinforced concrete containment building wall, and fire protection redundancies.

As for the affected businesses and homeowners, they may be left in a swirling vortex of coverage confusion. The situation would have the flavor of what happened after Superstorm Sandy, when coverage often depended on whether damage was caused by flooding or wind surge.

The question for Texas insureds would be whether the damage was caused by the tornado or by the radioactivity.

“It’s an incredibly complex question and a complex issue that is really only solvable and resolvable if and when the incident occurs,” said John Butler, vice president of the environmental practice at Hub International.

“What it boils down to is the chicken and the egg scenario,” he said. “What came first? Either event has the ability on its own to create a total loss.”

Resilience and redundancy should be the key takeaways from this, said Peter Boynton, founding co-director of the Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security at Northeastern University in suburban Boston.

“If we can retain a percentage of the critical function of whatever system we are talking about, the difference between 0 percent and 30 percent when the bad thing happens is huge.” — Peter Boynton, founding co-director of the Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security, Northeastern University

Instead of viewing catastrophic events from an emergency management perspective, where the discussion revolves around what was — or was not — managed well, it’s better to look at the way design can lead to “continuity of function,” he said.

When Boynton was head of emergency management for the state of Connecticut, he managed the statewide response in 2011 to Hurricane Irene, which knocked out 70 percent of the state’s electric grid, leaving residents unable to access many gas stations, ATMs and grocery stores.

If the state had designed a “resiliency approach” prior to the event, it could have built in a pre-determined amount of redundancy into the system so that, say, an additional 20 percent or 30 percent of the grid remained viable.

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“If we can retain a percentage of the critical function of whatever system we are talking about, the difference between 0 percent and 30 percent when the bad thing happens is huge,” Boynton said.

In the Texas scenario, if the crisis planning included a redundancy for warning nearby residents even when the power and communication lines failed — such as by using satellites to create a minimal level of continuity — the amount of death and destruction could have been lessened.

“Otherwise, we really are setting ourselves up for an impossible discussion,” he said. “You can’t just pick up these pieces at the moment of crisis. You have to understand how system design can play a role.”

Analyzing such a black swan scenario is a useful exercise, said Justin VanOpdorp, manager, quantitative analysis, at Lockton.

“Can this actually happen? Yes. Will it? Maybe not,” he said. “I think what it does is, it helps to think through it just to be prepared for those situations when they do arise.”

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Additional 2014 black swan stories:

Bigger Than the Big One

When the 8.5 magnitude earthquake hits, sea water will devastate much of Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a million destroyed homes will create a failed mortgage and public sector revenue tsunami.

Sub-Zero Sucker Punch

A double dose of ice storms batter the Eastern seaboard, plunging 50 million people and three million businesses into a polar vortex of darkness and desperation.

Anne Freedman is managing editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Workers' Comp

Keeping Workers on Their Feet

Slip and fall prevention programs must interweave all of the factors contributing to the risk.
By: | July 6, 2017 • 11 min read

If you peruse the last decade’s worth of literature from the CDC, NIOSH, or numerous other agencies or organizations, you’re bound to come across the “good news” that slips, trips and falls are largely preventable.

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So it’s frustrating, then, that slip, trip and fall injuries consistently account for more than a quarter of all nonfatal occupational injuries, and at least 65 percent of those injuries happen on same-level walking surfaces. And those figures just don’t budge all that much from year to year.

According to the “2016 Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index,” falls on same level currently rank as the second highest cause of disabling injuries in the U.S., with direct costs of $10.17 billion, accounting for 16.4 percent of the total national injury burden.

“Not only are they still happening often, but they tend to be very significant injuries,” said Mike Lampl, director of research at the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.

“We’ve seen these trends grow over the years,” said Wayne Maynard, product director, risk control, with Liberty Mutual. “Bottom line is, it’s a real, real big problem.”

So why are preventable falls so hard to prevent? This stubborn status quo, say experts, is that the causes of slips and trips are typically far more complex than they seem. There are nearly always multiple factors in play, from footwear and flooring and the interplay of both, to cleaning procedures, lighting, housekeeping, weather, and workers’ mental or physical conditions as well as overall awareness.

And all of these factors are being exacerbated by the fact that incidents often go unreported.

“Slips, falls — people get up, move on, they don’t report it,” said Maynard.

“When somebody’s injured and files a claim — in the workers’ arena, how many are behind the scenes that may have happened that are not reportable? …. The unreported number is considerable in my opinion.”

The key to making any headway in reducing slips and falls on the same surface, say experts, is to have a comprehensive fall prevention plan that addresses all possible factors. No small task.

Engineering Solutions

Flooring conditions are often the most obvious starting point. Ideally, said Maynard, all the right choices are made at the planning and design stage. But sometimes mistakes are made, and in other cases, a business may be inheriting an older space with floor chosen for a different purpose.

Patricia Showerman, senior loss control consultant, Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

So even flooring in good condition may be the wrong type of material and may not have the necessary coefficient of friction (slip resistance) needed for the work being done.

If companies want to drill down into all the details of the surfaces in their facilities, a friction coefficient study is always an option, said Patricia Showerman, senior loss control consultant at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co.

But if a company doesn’t want to take that step, she said, it may be a simpler matter of saying, “Let’s look at what you’ve got. Let’s look at your floor surfaces and how you’re maintaining them.”

A lot of people want that “shiny grocery store glam look,” she said. “And if you can do it properly, and maintain it properly and keep that coefficient of friction and have the shiny look, that’s great. That’s what everybody wants but how do they get there?”

Certain surfaces may start out with an adequate coefficient of friction when they’re clean and dry. But add even an invisible layer of dust or debris, “and it’s like microscopic little BBs that you slide across,” said Showerman. “So if you have dust on your floor, you are dramatically reducing your slip coefficient.”

For companies that do have flooring surfaces in need of improvement, ripping up the floor and replacing it isn’t typically a feasible option. Fortunately there are more budget-friendly ways to get the maximum slip resistance from existing flooring, such as coatings and etchings.

A coating adds a microscopic layer on top of the flooring that creates a grip surface while maintaining the shine. Showerman likened the effect to the way that Velcro fasteners work.

“You want that hook effect … sharp points are going to microscopically stick into the soles of your shoes, rather than rolling off the top.”

Etching can work in a similar way, chemically altering the existing surface to make it imperceptibly gritty. Etching can also be used to create pores in an existing surface, which is useful for areas such as machine shops, she said.

Be Smart With Surfactants

While keeping floor surfaces clean is one of the best ways to remove slip and fall hazards, cleaning them the wrong way can actually do more harm than good.

Failure to follow appropriate cleaning procedures can severely diminish a surface’s coefficient of friction.

Experts suggest that companies engage with their chemical suppliers, and discuss their flooring as well as the types of dirt or grease removal and disinfectant needs. Detergents – which can contain different types of surfactants — aren’t a one size fits all solution.

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Sometimes purchasers might be inclined to try to cover all their bases by buying the strongest product on the market, but that might mean adding unnecessary surfactants that make surfaces less slip resistant.

“Clearly identify the types of surfaces you’re using it for, the type of oil or dirt or debris you have, and whether or not you need a sanitizing step,” said Showerman.

“You’ve got to find the right balance.”

But that’s only half the battle. A significant problem experts see time and time again is that companies don’t understand how their flooring is being maintained on a day-to-day basis by front-line employees. Failure to follow appropriate cleaning procedures can severely diminish a surface’s coefficient of friction.

“This is where you’re seeing someone with a mop and bucket and they are just re-smearing that grease from one place to another. They put the dirty mop in the dirty bucket, the mop gets full of that emulsified grease and you’re smearing it across the room. In high grease areas, you have to replace with clean water consistently.”

In other cases, a worker without the proper training may grab the first detergent he finds, even if it’s meant for the equipment rather than the floor. Or perhaps he mixes equal parts detergent and water when he was supposed to only use 8 oz. of detergent for every five gallons of water.
Sometimes people will even over-concentrate the detergent on purpose, she added.

Peter Koch, safety management specialist, The MEMIC Group

“I see that in the food industry frequently,” said Showerman. “They find that the more detergent they leave on the floor, the easier it is to clean up next time … but then everyone’s slipping and falling like in a cartoon.”

A company could invest a significant amount in flooring improvements, only to have the benefits undone by improper detergent use or failure to follow recommended rinsing procedures.

It’s incumbent upon safety managers to reinforce that maintaining floor surfaces isn’t just a matter of housekeeping, but a key part of the company’s workplace safety program.

The Human Factor

When you’ve done everything possible to address hazards in the physical work environment, workers themselves remain the wildcard. Most employers routinely include slip and fall hazards in their safety awareness training or toolbox talk programs. But that training should go well beyond a general “watch where you walk” message, say experts.

“One of the most overlooked parts for employee safety is actually employee training,” said Peter Koch, safety management specialist at  The MEMIC Group.

“How do you train an employee to not slip and fall? I think many times that is wrapped in a “you have to be more careful” message, which is valid but nebulous and not very helpful — it means something different to everyone based on your risk tolerance as an individual.”

Koch’s employee training regimen revolves around four elements: surfaces, awareness, footwear and environment (SAFE).

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The first goal of the surface portion is just to get employees to start thinking about the different types of surfaces they walk on and how it can change throughout the work day. Koch said he likes to ask: “How many different types of surfaces did you have to walk on the get to this training room?”

The footwear piece of it is the most straightforward. Are your shoes designed for the work that you’re doing and the surfaces you’re walking on? Are they in good condition? Are the soles worn out?

There is no ASTM standard for measuring the performance of slip-resistant footwear, added Gallagher’s Showerman. So workers should be reminded that wearing the right shoe isn’t a guarantee — it’s just one piece of the solution.

Awareness, said Koch, may be the most challenging piece of the puzzle — helping people to think about their gait, what they’re carrying, what they’re doing, and simply where their heads are at any given moment.

“If you’re thinking about 15 things you have to get done by the end of the day, or you have a particularly challenging employee interaction coming up that day, or you had a fight with your girlfriend last night— or whatever it is — you’re not focused. Then you take that step through the icy patch, and now it relies completely on your athletic ability and luck to stay upright.”

Workers may not necessarily make the connection between personal factors and fall risk. Someone who has an ear infection or is taking certain medications, for example, may not even be aware that their balance might be compromised, putting them at higher risk for a fall.

Employees also should be reminded of how even normal daily stressors can contribute to risk. Everyone is under pressure to deliver more in less time. Everyone is rushing, everyone is stretched to their limits. Add the ever-present cellphone beeping and buzzing and demanding our attention and perhaps it’s a wonder slips and falls don’t happen even more often than they already do.

We’re so conditioned to react when the vibration goes off or the tone chimes in our pockets that we just grab it without thinking, Koch said.

“If you knowingly put yourself at risk by knowingly going quickly through an area with slip and fall exposures, it’s just Russian roulette – at some point you’re going to get broken.” — Peter Koch, safety management specialist, The MEMIC Group.

“Even that, in certain conditions, is going to be enough to put you on the ground.”

Awareness of environmental factors should also be part of the training, Koch said, especially in terms of what workers can’t control, like inclement weather.  He said the main thing he tries to impress upon people is to slow down in a high-risk environment.

“If you knowingly put yourself at risk by knowingly going quickly through an area with slip and fall exposures, it’s just Russian roulette – at some point you’re going to get broken.”

Koch says that getting people to put all of these facets of awareness together is where the training can really click.

The goal is that when they approach an area with a higher-risk surface, employees are thinking “for those few seconds or minutes that I’m going to be walking through it, I need to have a greater sense of awareness, I need to put away the mental [distractions] and focus on what I’m doing – don’t answer your phone, don’t answer your texts.”

Some employers are looking to address the human piece of the slip and fall puzzle by using training that goes far beyond hazard awareness. Active slip-prevention training focuses on body mechanics and teaches workers how to respond when they feel themselves begin to slip.

One such program revolves around the Slip Simulator, technology born of a research partnership between Virginia Tech researchers and UPS. The simulator that creates slippery and hazardous conditions in a controlled environment while participants walk in a harness so they can slip safely. An instructor offers real-time guidance on how to alter their movements to avoid falling.

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After mastering the initial technique, trainees face additional challenges related to their specific work environments, such as walking up ramps or turning wheels. A New Mexico security team practiced drawing firearms while standing on the simulator, which led to a change in how they wear their weapons. Workers at an Ohio refinery practiced stepping over pipes and turning large valves.

Clients of the program are reporting 60 to 80 percent reductions in accident rates.

The Road Ahead

A comprehensive slip and fall prevention plan is a must for employers, experts agreed, with clear, consistent procedures that empower employees to be a part of the solution.

“Employees play a very critical role,” said Liberty Mutual’s Maynard. “If they see a slip risk or a slipperiness issue, they need to be able to report it and they need to be able to get that corrected immediately. They have an important role in maintaining a safe facility and reducing risk themselves — be proactive, don’t walk by, clean it up.

“Any time you can involve the employee in solutions …. the likelihood of success of that intervention is higher.”

Maynard added that the best prevention plans will also be forward-looking.

“Understand where current safety performance is. Then make a roadmap to get better,” he said. “Emphasize where you’re doing well,” then identify opportunities to effect improvement, now and over the next three, four or five years.

“Prevention is too often reactive,” Maynard said. “We’ve got an issue and now what do we do? The goal is for companies to be proactive.” &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]