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Hubris: How a Japanese Nuclear Disaster Duplicated the Titanic Sinking

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By Dr. Robert Gordon
Program Director, Reverse Logistics Management at American Public University

Success sometimes brings out the hubris in people. Hubris strikes people when they feel their achievements make them impervious to failure.

When Irish shipbuilder Harland and Wolff built the Titanic in Belfast between 1909 and 1912, the ship exceeded the required number of lifeboats of the British Board of Trade at the time. On her maiden voyage, the RMS Titanic was the largest moving object the world had ever seen.

Everyone knows the tragedy of the Titanic and the huge loss of life caused by its collision with an iceberg. But there was some good that came from this tragedy. International shipping took a long, hard look at its safety standards and now ships have sufficient lifeboats for everyone.

Engineering Flaws Contributed to Titanic Disaster

One of the key lessons learned from the Titanic concerned the Titanic’s emergency pumps, designed to pump water out of the ship when necessary. These pumps were one of the safety features people thought would prevent the ship from sinking.

The pumps were located low in the ship. However, they were overwhelmed by the massive amount of Atlantic seawater that flooded through the gashes caused by the iceberg.

Future ship design would include emergency pumps placed in a higher location. Placing these emergency pumps higher would allow them to continue operating even as a ship took on water.

Similar Hubris Occurs Before Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Disaster

About 100 years later, a similar type of hubris occurred prior to a nuclear disaster in Japan. To reduce its dependence on foreign oil, Japan embarked upon the construction of several nuclear power plants.

For a while, Japan’s plan to reduce its need for oil appeared to be sound. Experts felt that the nation’s engineers and designers would prevent a nuclear accident from occurring in these power plants. Freedom from foreign oil was almost within Japan’s grasp.

However, disaster struck when a massive earthquake followed by a tsunami hit the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant on March 11, 2011. The designers and engineers had constructed the plant’s six reactors to survive an earthquake and a tsunami, but not both of these events.

The reactor was designed to withstand a large quake, but the seawall was only designed for a 5.7-meter tsunami, while engineers had previously warned that much larger waves could be possible.  The tsunami that struck was 15.7 meters and was large enough to overwhelm the seawall. The resulting flood of water then destroyed the emergency generators powering the pumps that cooled the reactors.

The emergency diesel generators came online to keep the pumps going. However, these generators were in the plant’s basement.

With no available water to cool the reactors, they began to experience a meltdown. Later, power became available and pumps helped the reactors to achieve “cold shutdown.”

Hubris Lessons Learned from Titanic and Fukushima Daiichi

What happened in the Titanic sinking and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster teaches us an important lesson about hubris. It’s important to not let hubris make us so arrogant that we become blind to potential dangers.

We need to consider all possibilities where natural disasters could wreak havoc, even in the most unlikely scenarios. By planning ahead and being foresighted, we are more likely to avoid tragedies of global proportions.

About the Author

Dr. Robert Gordon has 25 years of professional experience in supply chain and human resources. Robert has earned a Doctorate of Management and Organizational Leadership, an MBA and a B.A. in History. He has authored over 100 published articles, including five books covering a variety of business topics.

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