New York Times helps us understand risk

The essential mission of risk management is to “anticipate and prevent or mitigate harms that may be avoidable.” The detailed, ed retrospective analysis of risk management failures is a crucial aspect of learning from mistakes and making the requisite changes to avoid or mitigate future failures. This type of analysis seeks to provide a precise accounting of the situation as it existed before the catastrophic failure occurred, included what was known, or reasonably should have been known, by the main actors in the events, about relevant information and alternative strategies for risk reduction. (Thus it is not a case of adding blame after the fact for mistakes that could not have been foreseen by anyone.)

A series of articles published in The New York Times since March 2011 is indispensable for understanding what when wrong, and why. For a full list of all articles, go to: The New York Times, “Times Topics”:


The following Times articles are of particular interest:

1. “Japanese Rules for Nuclear Plants relied on Old Science,” by Norimitsu Onishi and James Glanz, 26 March 2011:

The offshore breakwaters protecting Japan’s nuclear plants – all of which face the sea – were designed to protect against the risk of typhoons, but not the risk of tsunamis. In general, this article’s review of Japan’s approach to nuclear safety concludes: “Japan is known for its technical expertise. For decades, though, Japanese officialdom and even parts of its engineering establishment clung to older scientific precepts for protecting nuclear plants,… failing to make use of advances in seismology and risk assessment since the 1970s.”

2. “Culture of Complicity tied to stricken Nuclear Plant,” by Norimitsu Onishi and Ken Belson, 26 April 2011:

This article details the long-term web of complicity among industry officials, politicians, and government regulators which ensured that dissenting views on risk management were systematically excluded from consideration. “Influential bureaucrats tend to side with the nuclear industry – and the promotion of it – because of a practice known as amakudari, or descent from heaven. Widely practiced in Japan’s main industries, amakudari allows senior bureaucrats, usually in their 50s, to land cushy jobs at the companies they once oversaw.”

3. “Japanese Officials ignored or concealed Dangers,” by Norimitsu Onishi and Martin Fackler, 16 May 2011:

During decades of successfully battling against lawsuits filed by civilians against the nuclear industry in Japan, industry officials and academics regarded as friendly to the industry systematically covered up deficiencies in the siting of the plants, seismological records, the existence of fault lines, and the viability of the safety measures at the plants.

4. “’Safety Myth’ left Japan ripe for Nuclear Crisis,” by Norimitsu Onishi, 24 June 2011:

The use of robots for emergency measures at nuclear plants – especially when radiation levels are very high – is standard in the industry around the world, but not in Japan, despite the fact that it is the world’s leader in robotic technologies. Why not? Hiroyuki Yoshikawa, a robotics expert, explained: “The [nuclear] plant operators said that robots, which would premise an accident, were not needed. Instead, introducing them would inspire fear [among the public], they said. That’s why they said that robots couldn’t be introduced.”

Emerging Risks with the Potential For Catastrophic Losses

I am particularly concerned with emerging risks with the potential for catastrophic losses, which will be, in my view, an integral feature of an increasingly globally-interconnected world. Of course, this is an overriding concern for both the insurance and reinsurance industries as well as for governments (in their capacity as insurers of last resort for their citizens). In my presentation at the iNTeg-Risk conference I mentioned three such events in the past three years: the global financial crisis (ongoing since late 2008, with no end in sight and with almost incalculable levels of realized and projected losses around the globe); the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico (2010); and the nuclear industry crisis in Japan (2011).

This is the opening paragraph from Dr Leiss’ opening remarks at the iNTeg-Risk/IRGC Joint Session on Emerging Risks in Stuttgart, 6 June 2011. A copy of his full talk is attached.

Emerging Risks

WikiLeaks and the Mushroom Industry

There has been a fair amount of frothing at the mouth by media commentators, drug including some academics, nurse about the latest trove of documents. Great quantities of damage have been alleged, although (unlike the information in the WikiLeaks documents) these are entirely speculative in nature; huge risks have been postulated, but again, with little intimation of what or who is allegedly at risk (apart from those persons associated with WikiLeaks).

A Canadian diplomat offers to resign for having told his masters that Afghan President Harmid Karzai is a crook. What a surprise! Are these deep thinkers among the commentators really unaware that the President’s office in Afghanistan is and always has been a hub of money- laundering, bribe-taking, and narcotics trafficking? Are they unaware that, no matter what noble sacrifices our soldiers, and those of other countries, have and will make before they finally depart, the country in question will revert to some version of a failed state, run by warlords and manipulated by our stalwart ally, Pakistan’s so-called intelligence service, immediately upon their departure? That then the helpless women of Afghanistan will be subjected to the same vicious brutality and mutilation – see the current issue of National Geographic – they have always endured, with a little extra thrown in for their presumption in seeking a modicum of relief during the foreigners’ occupation?

One or two rotund sheiks from the oil kingdoms urged the U. S. to obliterate the Iranian regime. Here some confusion might be engendered in the public mind: Were they motivated out of concern for the welfare of the Israelis? Probably not. It’s more likely that these pious Sunnis were thinking of how much more peaceful the Islamic Umma would be if about seventy million of their heretical co-religionists were abruptly wiped off the face of the earth.

Pakistan is a failed state, where the fractious government makes promises to their foreign benefactors that they know they will never keep, while gleefully cashing their cheques for vast new stocks of military equipment, and while slyly encouraging popular opinion to blame foreigners for all their woes. Russia is indeed a mafia-controlled state where massive corruption occurs among the political and economic elite. These are truths well-known to all who have eyes to see, and now we realize, courtesy of WikiLeaks, that some diplomats are also aware of them. What an astonishing revelation!

To his credit our own Stephen Harper backed his diplomats in Afghanistan. As far as most other politicians are concerned, their real interest in maintaining secrecy in such matters is to dupe their own citizens about the realities of global affairs. For politics is a subsidiary of the mushroom industry, the modus operandi of which is simplicity itself: Keep the product in the dark and feed it on horseshit. Throwing a bit of light on this dark industry is not good for mushrooms but is always an excellent tonic for the public.

So far as Mr. Assange is concerned, he probably has little to fear from Canadian-based assassination squads, but he really ought to turn himself in to the Swedish justice system and answer the charges against him. After all, it’s not as if it’s the Chinese authorities who are after him. Or is that another unpleasant truth that we shouldn’t talk about?


For the particle physics community the notorious “Higgs boson” is the Holy Grail: This entirely theoretical construct is thought to give mass to matter – without which the material world wouldn’t amount to much, pharm obviously. They hope to find it with the help of the massive and massively expensive Large Hadron Collider built by CERN along the Franco-Swiss border. Outside the scientific community it is whimsically referred to as the “God particle.”

In the March 8 Globe and Mail Rolf-Dieter Heuer, advice the director of CERN, is quoted as follows: “The Higgs particle is not easy to find. We know everything about the Higgs particle, except if it exists.”

Sort of like God, no?

Those who hope for the reconciliation of monotheism and modern science should be very pleased.

Airline Security and Risk Management

Judging from the various articles in this Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, there remains a fair amount of confusion, here and elsewhere, about airline security in the wake of the latest terrorist plot.  Those of us who are “risk junkies” have been expecting something like what happened on Northwest Flight 253 since early last September – and, we fervently hope, government security officials, especially in the United States, have too, even though they missed Mr. Abdulmutallab.

What’s next? Click “(More…)” below, and let’s do some serious risk management.

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