News Stories

Near Misses

BP may have been careless or parsimonious, but they certainly didn't want the huge oil link, and the terrible publicity (not to mention clean up costs) that have come along with it, to happen (or did they?). Every industry has near misses like this one. Sometimes they could have been prevented and sometimes, maybe not. Despite reports from the media, it's often hard to figure out what's REALLY going on.

Some of the biggest fears are near misses in nuclear meltdowns and plane crashes. In the June 12th edition of the Wall Street Journal, Carl Bialik quotes industrial engineer Scott Shappell as saying, "All you hear about are crashes, but it's the near misses that are telling. If you only knew how many near misses there are in aviation, you would never fly again."

Probability risk assessment is known as PRA, and when working out a budget for a new product, statisticians regularly try to estimate the its PRA: How likely it is that an accident will occur, so they can factor in which safety devices to include (and which ones not to, in order to save on expenses and maximize profits). This is especially important when mass-producing (such as a car), where saving a few dollars per vehicle can add up quickly.

Nuclear power plant builders use PRA and so does NASA. Bialik quotes NASA bean counter Robert Doremus as saying, "It's been really handy. It has helped us step back and say, where are our high-risk areas?" As the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003 showed, this doesn't always work.

Bialik quotes economist Manfred Gilli as saying, "What is important is, what is the damage? If something happens with high probability but just a few fishes die, well, sorry for the fishes." This is probably how BP thought, but it turned out to be much more: Their broken pipe destroyed an entire economy at the height of its busiest season. The long term ecological impact has yet to be assessed.

Near misses are a special problem when it comes to nuclear energy. Unknown to his neighbors, webmaster Mark Suppes is building a nuclear fusion reactor in a Brooklyn residential neighborhood--LOTS of near miss potential there! In Yahoo News, Liz Goodwin quotes Brooklyn resident Stephen Davis as saying, "I would have thought there would be some sort of rules and laws about messing around with nuclear fusion in your apartment. I'm not sure I'd like that living right next to me."

At least NASA is doing PRA: One near miss (or collision) that astronomers want to avoid is an asteroid impact. A new telescope in Hawaii called the Pan-STARRS 1 is especially designed to search for asteroids and comets that could threaten the earth. It's on all night, every night. has been made operational, searching for close space objects and exploding stars.

Suppes may have not done enough PRA before handling nuclear material in Brooklyn, but there will be a lot more of it done by offshore drilling companies in the future. Bialik quotes engineer Todd Paulos as saying, "Now there is going to be a burst of PRA in the oil business, [but] doing it after the fact doesn't help you before the fact."

Besides a near miss from an asteroid or a leak from a nuclear power plant, there's a danger that's happening right now that you may not be aware of: This website is in urgent need of your support! If we're going to continue to be here for you, you need to subscribe today and encourage your friends to do the same! (To help us even more, click on the "donate" tab on our homepage). And here's something special for subscribers: Mac Tonnies,the subject of this week's Dreamland, was a remarkable investigator, and his untimely death of natural causes at the age of 34 was a great loss for the community of people struggling to find focus and meaning at the edge of reality. We have now add to our permanent subscriber archive a truly fascinating and important group of clips from Mac's various radio appearances.

To learn more, click here, here and here. Art credit: Dreamstime.com

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