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We (and Congress) find it incredible that BP and the copycat oil industry have vapid, empty crisis plans, and therefore they weren’t at all prepared for the Gulf spill at one mile down. Obviously, neither was our government, at any level, prepared. Well, just how prepared do you think government at all levels, or private industry, is to come to grips with a nuclear disaster, whether it is an accident or caused? I guess, not very ready, at all.

Are there practical plans for protecting people and things from needless contamination? Are there realistic plans to deal with social and business disruption, hungry and injured people and animals, financial stability, communications coordination, government continuity, command and control, and timely, passionate reparations? Are our institutions investing in nuclear safety to protect our society at a level commensurate with our production of nuclear weapons and use of current or future nuclear energy resources? No way.

Two small, but perhaps illustrative examples from my experience as an Army staff officer in the late 60s, when the country was perhaps more top-of-mind than now on nuclear threats (from nuclear energy plant accidents, nuclear material movements, and nuclear attack):

1) As an operations officer at the HQ for the Army War College, where students — mostly colonels designated as general officer candidates — held contingency positions as alternates for Department of Defense officials, I was assigned to overview nuclear survival contingencies for their families and other staff, if the alternates had to go underground to run the military. I found the shelters for these family members and others who could not dive into the hardened nuclear command shelters, were not well maintained, did not have the requisite up-to-date food, water, medical supplies, geiger counters, etc., needed to provide a modicum of survivability. How anxious would all those colonels be to abandon their families to an unprepared fate? When I made a fuss about it with my higher ups, they ordered the supplies and sent me to training to manage that survival plan.
2) The Army then sent me to special training at a classified location in Arizona to become a Public Affairs Officer for a military nuclear emergency team, one that would be prepared to respond to nuclear accidents or threats in the NE of the U.S. It was a good course, maybe a week or so of learning procedures, practices and simulations of responding to such an emergency. Our job would be to be the military liaison for dealing with public and press relations in such a disaster. But let me be honest, could a first lieutenant (however good I was) with a week’s special liaison training hardly be expected to be qualified and prepared to deal with the enormity of a BP-level public affairs disaster across a sixth of the country?

While I’ve read that some communities have practical and tested contingency plans for nuclear recovery, and I’m sure the federal government and states, and nuclear power companies do as well, as does the military, do you think they’d be any more effective than our governments and BP has been in managing the repercussions in the Gulf to date? It is a scary prospect.

Maybe it’s time to take all our contingency planning for major risks and disasters, at all levels, a lot more seriously than we have up to now, and stop copying old documents that might have been actionable at some time in the past. If the BP crisis motivates us to do that, we’ll gain something from this mess.

Read the new Economist’s editorial on how the U.S., Obama in particular — is risking being too tough on BP. They even compare him to Russia’s Putin in kicking around private enterprise. Come on. Yes, there is risk that Obama and company, including Congress, are pandering a bit to public outrage about BP’s apparent criminal negligence in it’s lack of providing Gulf drilling safety measures and its empty contingency planning. Considering they are politicians, whose very employment is contingent on such pandering, that’s what they do. They have to be careful they don’t overstep the law in their condemnation of BP, as the Economist points out clearly. And yes, BP has ceded to demands for setting aside cash for reparations, withholding a dividend, and even sending their CEO home on furlow (so he could watch his yacht, Bob, compete off the Isle of Wight).

And is Obama and company ganging up on British pensioners and other BP shareholders who are being financially penalized to pay for all this? Sure, but they made what has turned out to be a bad investment. Americans already know about those. But is this excessive, and posing a risk to the status of private enterprise in American culture, as The Economist theorizes? Hardly. Apparently no one at BP has yet been fired over the spill, at least according to Hayward before Congress. What kind of accountability and Board responsibility is that? The spill goes on and on, and at higher levels than BP long acknowledged. Many Americans are already out of jobs. And the wildlife that have paid the ultimate price already will never be known.

The economic loss and trauma to humanity of this needless tragedy, and the repercussions that will go on beyond our lifetimes is vast and unknown in its scope and breadth. Are Obama and company risking our economy or our souls over handling this issue? I don’t think so. They should be careful, but what happens to BP, it’s reputation, it’s so-called leadership (and their boats) is of little concern to me.

June 2010

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