In early July of this year, a freight train loaded with crude oil left a small town in western North Dakota headed east. A day later it was being handled by a small railroad company in Quebec. Night came and the engineer, operating the train by himself, was ready to finish his shift.
He left the train on the seldom-used main track, as was normal. Before leaving, he set hand breaks on a number of rail cars, shut down all but one locomotive, made sure the air brakes were also set and went off to a hotel.
Shortly after he left, motorists on the adjacent highway noticed sparks and excessive smoke coming from the one idling locomotive and called the fire department. They arrived, found a fire in the engine, shut the engine down, put out the fire and left. Deprived of power, the air brakes slowly bled off.
The train was sitting on a grade, a grade so slight most auto drivers wouldn’t notice, but significant to trains. Not enough hand brakes had been set, and slowly the train started to move downhill without anyone attending it.
Accelerating, it approached the town of Lac-Megantic and derailed on a curve near the center of town, spilling tank cars and crude.
Trains have had fires before, trains are left standing unattended all the time and trains have run away before, sometimes killing their crews or crashing and burning. But this time, something happened that people did not think was possible: The crude oil didn’t just burn off, it exploded like a bomb, shattering the center of town and killing at least 47 people. The railroad company subsequently declared bankruptcy; the town will take years to rebuild.
How big a risk?
Investigations of this disaster are still ongoing and not all the facts are clear. But a series of violations of existing rules seem to have happened: the railroad may not have had formal permission to operate single-person crews, the rules for setting hand brakes were not followed, various communications between engineer, fire crews and the train dispatcher seem not to have been followed and — while it wouldn’t have stopped this accident — leaving the lead engine cab unlocked was probably not a good idea either.
And then there is the oil. It was apparently mislabeled and was of a type more volatile than what was placarded on the cars. It may have been mixed with more volatile agents, but the reason for the explosion is not yet fully determined.
What to do?
What should we conclude from this accident? More and more crude oil is being shipped by train. What is the best approach to lower the risk of this disaster happening again? Was this simply a failure of oversight because all those existing rules were violated? Or does this call for tighter rules: no unattended trains, no single-person operation of trains, more puncture-resistant tank cars, etc.? Does it call for a change of strategy by building more east-west pipelines to reduce the dependence of producers and refiners on rail traffic?
Or does it mean that the risks of using North Dakota oil — including the all the risks of fracking — make it an unsafe energy source and we should abandon it for something less risky?
In trying to decide what to do, we often compare the risk of one thing to an ideal situation of no risk. We say, perhaps with a pious tone to our voice, that “one death is too many.”
However noble, it is not possible to live in a paradise where no one risks injury or death. Using anything involves some risk. People die from airplanes, trucks, buses, cars, boats and bicycles. Even if we stay at home, we are at risk from floods, electrocution, food poising and falls. If we only interact with our closest partners, we know that those intimate relationships have a potential to turn deadly.
There is no absolutely safe place; but some places that are more risky than others. It is about comparing risks, and comparing the costs of reducing those risks.
We hear that “you can’t be too careful.” But that is also wrong. Resources spent to make something safe are not available to spend on making something else safe. We have to choose.
It turns out that we are totally inconsistent in our choices. We fear terrorism and have spent many billions on security even though almost no Americans die from terrorism in a given year. We put great resources into making flying safe but accept much greater risks from driving. We buy a gun to protect ourselves from a home invasion or to wear when we go to the mall to guard against the minuscule risk that a mass shooting will take place, while accepting risks in allowing the sort of unstable people who might initiate a mass shooting to own guns.
The risks of energy production
We also seem to fear the risks of nuclear power much more than we fear the risks of oil or gas exploration — even though the latter may have much larger and more lasting environmental consequences. We’ve decided that no method of long-term storage of nuclear waste has a low enough risk to be acceptable, but we are far less worried about the CO2 we put in the air or the content of the fly ash from coal burning.
Of course, not everyone thinks in the same way and each of us has risks we worry about, and those we ignore.
But what is the least risky way of powering our cars and heating our homes? Does it involve becoming more efficient or redesigning our cities to require less travel? Which is best — oil, coal, natural gas or maybe even nuclear power? Or is it renewables like wind, solar and hydro?
These choices are far more difficult to figure out than many think. First, the full process of creating the energy has to be considered. To take nuclear power, uranium must be mined, processed, enriched, used in a reactor and then disposed of or reprocessed. The reactor has to produce electric power that must be distributed and then used in a variety of ways. At the end of its life, the reactor has to be decommissioned, itself a long and expensive process.
At each step along the way, there are risks, inefficiencies and costs. But that is true for all forms of energy production, including renewable forms, and in any effort to become more efficient in the use of energy.
Unfortunately, when it comes to nuclear power, all people seem to see is either the non-existent risk of a nuclear explosion or the almost non-existent risk of a modern plant releasing dangerous quantities of radioactivity. Ironically, they can’t see the risk of significant financial loss or the risk of failing to implement a long-term storage solution for radioactive waste.
Coal’s impact on the climate hardly registers and renewable energy is bathed in a warm glow that resists serious inquiry about its costs and practicality for large-scale use.
Life is a trade-off
The risk of a future Fukushima-style disaster can be almost eliminated either by a better backup power system or by that in combination with reactor designs that require less external power to cool themselves. By contrast, preventing a Lac-Megantic-style disaster probably requires replacing every tank car used to transport flammable materials with newer models that are more puncture resistant.
Which option saves the most lives? Which option saves a life for less money?
Those questions sound cynical or inhuman, but they are absolutely inevitable. Failing to answer them risks more deaths. Answering them correctly is a most human thing to do.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.