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

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]