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

Absence Management

Establishing Balance With Volunteers

It’s good business to allow job-leave for volunteer emergency responders, whether or not state laws apply.
By: | January 10, 2018 • 7 min read

If 2017 had a moniker, it might be “the year of the natural disasters,” thanks to a phenomenal array of catastrophic or severe events— hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, ice storms and floods.

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Combined with smaller-scale fires and other emergencies, these incidents tax the resources of local and state emergency services, often prompting the need to call volunteer emergency responders into action.

But as lean as most organizations are already running, volunteer activities can sometimes cause friction between employees and employers. Handling conflicts the wrong way can potentially lead to legal headaches, harm employee morale and batter a company’s reputation.

State by State Variations

Most employers are aware of the various federal and state leave laws protecting their employees, including family and medical leave, pregnancy leave and military leave. But leave laws that protect the livelihoods of volunteer emergency responders are more likely to fly under the radar of some HR managers and risk managers.

Such laws don’t exist in every state, but more than 20 states do have some type of law in place to protect volunteers including emergency responders, firefighters, disaster workers, medical responders, ambulance drivers or peace officers.

Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management

The laws vary broadly. Nearly all specify that such leave be unpaid, and that employees disclose their volunteer status to employers and provide documentation for each leave. But there is a spectrum of variations in terms of what may trigger an eligible leave. Some, for instance, apply for any emergency that prompts a call from the volunteer’s affiliated responder group. Others may require a government declaration of emergency for the law to be triggered.

While many of the laws do not explicitly require employers to let employees leave work when called to an emergency during a shift, most specify that an employee may be late or even miss work entirely without facing termination or any other adverse employment action.

Some states mandate a maximum number of unpaid leave days that a volunteer can claim. But others may place more significant burdens on employers. In California, for instance, employers with 50 or more employees are required to grant up to 14 days of unpaid leave for training activities in addition to any leave taken to respond to emergency events. For multistate employers, keeping on top of what obligations may apply in each circumstance can be a challenge.

Significant Risks

Large or mid-sized employers may rely on absence management providers to keep them in compliance. For smaller employers though, it may be as simple as looking up a state’s law via Google to find out what’s required. However, checking in with the state department of labor or the company’s attorney may be the best way to get the correct facts.

“I would caution that just because you don’t find something [on the internet], it doesn’t mean it’s not there,” said absence management and employment law attorney Marti Cardi, vice president of Product Compliance for Matrix Absence Management.

For example, Cardi said, an obscure Texas law provides job-protected leave for volunteer ham radio operators called into service during an emergency.

Cardi said employers should task HR to investigate the laws in each state the company operates in, and to ensure that supervisors are educated about the existence of these laws.

“If a supervisor is told by one of his or her employees, ‘Sorry I’m not coming in today … I’ve been called to volunteer firefighter duty for the [nearby region] fire,’” she said, you want to be sure that the supervisor knows not to take action against the employee, and to contact HR for guidance.

“Training supervisors to be aware of this kind of absence is really important.”

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An employer that does terminate a protected volunteer for responding to an emergency may be ordered to pay back wages and reinstate the employee. In some cases, the employee may also be able to sue for wrongful termination.

And of course, “you don’t want to be the company in the headlines that is getting sued because you fired the volunteer firefighter,” she added.

If an employer bars a volunteer from responding, the worst-case scenario may be a third-party claim. Failure to comply with the law could give rise to a claim along the lines of “‘If you had complied with your statutory obligation to give Jane Doe time to respond, my loved one would not have died,’” explained Philadelphia-based Jonathan Segal, partner at law firm Duane Morris and managing principal of the Duane Morris Institute.

“That’s the claim I think is the largest in terms of legal risk.”

Even if no one dies or is seriously injured, he added, “there could still be significant reputational risk if an individual were to go to the media and say, ‘Look, I got called by the fire department and I wasn’t allowed to go.’”

The Right Thing to Do

What employers should be thinking about, Segal said, is that whether or not you have a legal obligation to provide job-protected leave for volunteer responders, “there’s still the question of what are the consequences if you don’t?”

Employee morale should be factored in, he said. The last thing any company wants is for employees to perceive it as insensitive to their interests or the interests of the community at large.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” — Jonathan Segal, partner, Duane Morris; managing principal, Duane Morris Institute

“How is this going to resonate with my employees, with my workforce, how are people going to see this? These are all relevant factors to consider,” he said.

There’s an argument to be made for employers to look at the bigger picture when it comes to any volunteer responders on their payroll, said Segal.

“Sometimes employers need to go beyond the law, and this is one of those times,” he said. “Think about the case where’s there’s not a specific state law [for emergency responders] and you say to a volunteer, ‘No, you can’t leave to deal with this fire’ and then people die. You as an employer have potentially played a role, indirectly, because you didn’t allow the first responder or responders to go,” he said.

The bottom line is that “it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s not required by law,” agreed Cardi.

“I feel that companies should have a policy that they’re not going to discipline or discharge someone for absences due to this kind of civic service, subject to verification of course.”

Clear Policy

While most employers do strive to be good corporate citizens, it goes without question that employers need to guard their own interests. It’s not especially likely that volunteer responders will try to take advantage of the unpaid leave allowed them, but of course, it could happen.

That’s why it’s important to have policies that are aligned with state laws. Those policies could include:

  • Notifying the company of any volunteer affiliations either upon hire or as soon they are activated as volunteers.
  • Requiring that employees notify a supervisor as soon as possible if called to an emergency (state requirements vary).
  • Requiring documentation after the event from the head of the entity supervising the volunteer’s activities.

If at some point it becomes excessive – someone has responded to emergencies five times in nine weeks, then it’s time to examine the specifics of the law and have a discussion with the employee about what’s reasonable, said Segal. It may also be time to ask specifics about whether the person is volunteering each time, or are they being called.

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In some cases, the discussion may need to be about finding a middle ground, especially if an employee has taken on an excessively demanding volunteer role.

“We encourage volunteers to pick the style that best fits their schedule,” said Greta Gustafson, a representative of the American Red Cross. “Disaster volunteers can elect to respond to disasters locally, nationally, or even virtually, and each assignment varies in length — from responding overnight to a home fire in your community to deploying across the country for several weeks following a hurricane.

“The Red Cross encourages all volunteers to talk with their employers to determine their availability and to communicate this with their local Red Cross chapter.”

Segal suggests approaching it as an interactive dialogue — borrowing from the ADA. “Employers may need to open a discussion along the lines of ‘I need you here this week because this week we have a deliverable on Friday and you’re critical to that client deliverable,’” he said, but also identify when the employee’s absence would be less critical.

No doubt there will be tough calls. An employer may have its hands full just trying to meet basic customer needs and need all hands on deck.

“That may be a situation where you say, ‘First let me check the law,’” said Segal. If there’s a leave law that applies, “then I’m going to need to comply with it. If there’s not, then you may need to balance competing interests and say, ‘We need you here.’” &

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