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Start Responding to an Emergency Situation: with Numbers
23 December 2015

Responding to an Emergency Situation: with Numbers

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“During the first hours you don’t think, you act”

“Money does not come into the decision-making process in the first few hours”

Professor Simon French (University of Warwick, UK)

French began his career as a “chalk and blackboard” researcher in statistical and probabilistic analysis, but after being invited to visit Chernobyl four years after the accident, his interests took a new turn and he is now one of the leading experts in decision-making in emergency situations; and not only in the nuclear sphere, because he was also involved in the “mad cow” crisis and other food and health related scares. Since then, his focus has become “highly multidisciplinary” and he is “half professor and half risk consultant”, and while from time to time he has worked with many major companies, his work consists in developing procedures and methods to help the UK and other European governments in the management of real emergencies involving the environment, public health, energy and the nuclear industry.

“Poor responses to nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are much,much less likely in Europe”

In the wake of Chernobyl, all countries invested a great deal of money in risk analysis, and when the Fukushima disaster occurred in 2011 there were many models that proved useful, although others were not as effective as hoped because the two plants were very different, as were the causes of the accidents. Today, we can rest a little more assured; “poor responses to nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are much, much less likely in Europe”. After a whole range of studies, taking into account general plans concerning land use, etc… and all have rigorous emergency protocols prepared – and exercised — for multiple combinations of possible faults and failures and the action of containment to be followed in each case. Priority number one is always the safety and security of the population, and in a real emergency situation decisions will not be taken by the technical staff that happen to be in charge at that moment. “No, during the first hours you don’t think, you act”; for a particular radiation leak, evacuation would be carried out within a pre-established radius, no matter which way the wind is blowing, because population density is much greater in Europe than in the USA, or perhaps the protocol calls for production to be closed down and the prevision of certain foodstuffs, or even the possibility of bringing in drinking water… Certainly, no action of this nature may be necessary, but even so it would not have been a bad decision, because in the very first moments no one knows how the situation might be resolved. The plans allow for a lot of leeway, and furthermore the economic cost is never factored into decision-making during the first hours and the money question is not considered as a variable. Weeks or months later, when the situation has been evaluated objectively, a decision can be taken about whether it is worthwhile to clean up a school or if it is better to knock it down and build it elsewhere.

“The most difficult thing is making politicians understand that, even thougheverything is done properly, a certaindegree of uncertainty remains”

Much more knowledge is available these days for predicting the effects of radiation after a nuclear accident and for drawing up highly efficient emergency plans. Ten years ago it was not possible to predict the “movement” of radiation beyond 4 or 5 hours after the accident. Today, however, extremely precise meteorological forecasts are available for a 3-day period rather than just 3 hours; the implications for the food chain can be predicted, as well as the deposition of the contamination, etc. Governments can be provided with very trustworthy forecasts in just a few hours and immediately take action to set in motion a broad range of measures; medical services, evacuations, food supplies and so on. The fact is that progress in this field of mathematics has enabled models and predictions to be developed that are capable of reducing uncertainty to a minimum, although politicians continue to demand absolute certainty during the management of an emergency process, which makes the task of communicating uncertainty to them almost as complicated as estimating risk in just a few hours.

By Lucía Durbán Carmona for ICMAT

This article is an excerpt from an original text published in ICMAT

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