Failure Modes in Times of Crisis


In the wake of Japan’s tragic earthquake and tsunami, communication was essential. How many people died with fully-charged, sophisticated pocket-radios in their hands, trying desperately to send a text message that said “Help! I am buried at _____”? How many more will perish, when calamity strikes, time and time again around the world, because victims find themselves trapped in a disaster area where the cell system has gone down?

Are you satisfied with a system that not only can let you down in an emergency, but that is absolutely guaranteed to fail, at some time of dire crisis, when you need it most? If you aren’t satisfied with that prospect, what do you plan to do about it?

For fifteen years I hectored contacts at Defense, FEMA, Homeland Security and other agencies, urging them to at least study possible fixes to this brittle situation. One solution that I’ve pushed would cost almost nothing and might be (almost) trivial to implement. Simply require that all cell phones be equipped to pass along text messages on a peer-to peer (P2P-packet) basis, all the way to the edge of the afflicted zone, whereupon they can be sent on their way.

Predictably, the cell-companies hate the idea, but only for emotional reasons, since it has been shown that actual implementation would be easy. Nor need there be even a slight diminishing of revenue! (Phones that pass P2P texts can be pre programmed to report these transactions, for billing purposes!) Such a capability might even expand the company’s claimed area of coverage, since many “shadowed” or “last mile” regions could thereupon engage in texting.

Let’s be plain here. After refusing to even investigate this possibility, the companies and agencies who have refused to even look into such an obvious fix are culpable. The next time disaster victims suffer or die because they cannot use their phones to call for help, the word to describe these each of lazy executives will be “murderer.”


I consider myself to be one of the “techno-hippies,” like Stewart Brand, who have been pushing the “new nuclear renaissance,” I am not unaware of the drawbacks! But we believe the newest fission power designs are light years ahead of the kind of boiling water reactor that broke down in Japan, quake and tsunami ravaged northeast. With climate change, pollution, energy shortages and dependence upon unsavory petro-princes all in mind, these new designs still seem worth careful prototyping. Indeed, more than ever, so that the crotchety designs of 50 years ago can be retired.

Statistics are telling. The number of people who have died, per megawatt-hour of power produced by each type of energy system, are by far highest for coal and oil… and by far lowest for nuclear power. Lower even than solar. By an order of magnitude.

Nevertheless, the terrifying situation in Japan is riveting and compels an open mind to new thoughts. Some lessons leap out at us.

First, the horrific behavior of the Tokyo Power company, both before and during the crisis, is an archetype of what can go wrong when a single, monolithic institution is both in charge of critical infrastructure and responsible for its own accountability. This crisis was avoidable. Even in the face of nature’s unprecedented fury.

But the lies and shortcuts taken before the calamity pale next to those uttered during the aftermath. The lessons are clear:

* We should never, ever allow a single agency or company the power to issue reassuring “truths” without competing sources of verification and scrutiny. A demure, respectful society like Japan appears to be particularly prone to this failure mode. In contrast, these independent sources exist along the west coast of the US, in about a dozen of the finest universities on the planet… and hence, efforts by Fox News to drum up panic over a “Japanese radioactivity cloud” failed. (See this further example of top-notch journalism.)

* Likewise, any new nuclear endeavors… indeed all risky-bold new endeavors of any kind… should be surveiled and monitored by multiple independent groups that include the most devoted enemies of the program! True, these are the most irksome people to have around, when you are trying to get things done. But they are also the ones most likely to leap upon any potential failure mode and make absolutely sure that it is attended-to. Critics are the only known antibodies against the self-deception of bright guys, who all too easily assume they have got everything sussed.

Here are the twin principles of error-avoiding transparency:
1) Paranoid critics should be given full access to all information and full-voice to all of their concerns. They should then be part of the routine inspectorate that pokes at every complacency.
2) Once their concerns have been dealt with, those same critics must not be allowed to decide whether we move forward.

* Reiterating that point. While improving transparency and caution, we must return to being a people that willingly takes on bold endeavors and difficult challenges. A plague of timidity will not help us triumph over the problems that we face. However it is rationalized, by dunces at both ends of the spectrum, cynical anti-ambition propaganda is a poison that may kill all hope.

* Clearly, the spent fuel rods that spend five years cooling down in pools next to today’s light-water nuclear reactors are more dangerous than most of us were led to believe. Hence, it is time to re-open the matter of Yucca Mountain. The U.S. needs a semi-permanent nuclear waste facility and the excuses given, for delaying this, are simply dumb. (For people who don’t give a damn about the world a century from now to howl about some hypothetical leak that might occur in 10,000 years is utter hypocrisy.

How about betting on our children? I am 99% certain that the cannisters stored in Yucca Mountain won’t have to last 10,000 years!. They will be withdrawn in less than a century, like deposits in a bank! By descendants who are far more advanced that us and who see those rare elements as unmatched resources for fabulous projects! Why is no one able to even mention this most-likely outcome?

Promise the State of Nevada a 5% royalty on everything and anything ever withdrawn from the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Resource Bank and Reserve. If they really can think in terms of deep time, they should leap at the investment.

We must be better prepared next time. For there will be a next time…


Filed under society, technology

12 responses to “Failure Modes in Times of Crisis

  1. I’m a PIMBY. “Put It in My Back Yard.”

    I live in Utah, and Utah residents keep screaming about the dangers of nuclear waste. Me, I want to see it buried here and owned, lock, stock, and barrel by a forward-thinking agency that understands that if it’s hot enough to be dangerous, it’s hot enough to be fuel.

    Sadly, neither of the major American political parties is pro-nuke. Mainstream progressives conflate environmentalism with “no nuclear power”, and mainstream conservatives are too steeped in the fear-mongering to come anywhere near a BOOK about nuclear power, much less an actual power plant.

    (It’s possible I’m exaggerating. If so, show me an openly pro-nuke politician and I will vote for him/her in the next election.)

  2. Is there someplace on line where folks can put energy behind cell phone emergency P2P text? I’d like to help make that happen.

  3. The best simpler solution is to have *mobile* antenna/relay for cell phones, that could be send on hot spots in the hours following a disaster – cheao, fast and easy!
    I also suffered from this problem on 2001, sept 21 (not 11!), when “AZF” chemical plant exploded near my work place (Toulouse, France). Every phone was cut out for several hours (but atm the cell phone where not as common as today).
    Using cell phone could even be used to *find* people, as any cell phone is localized (approx) and can be very presisely by triangulation with three antennas, even if the user is unconscious.
    Your idea is brilliant!

  4. Sadly the industry thinks it can get away with dumping the waste for 10000 years. They think its cheaper than reprocessing. Discouraging to see your cell phone suggestions ignored and the japan tragedy prove your point.

  5. Wonderphile

    I agree with Jean-Daniel about mobile antenna/relays … use tethered helium balloons for emergency cell towers. As it is, Japan’s mobile network went down, so the P2P solution won’t work without a quickly deployable mobile network.
    Would it be possible to have an app that routes GPS and other info to a clearinghouse site?

  6. Jordan Dea-Mattson

    David –
    If we were reprocessing nuclear fuel, like the rest of the world, rather than dumping it in the ground, then we would not need Yucca Mountain.

    And, as I am sure you know, many of the new designs use for fuel what we would consider waste.

    France and Germany and Japan do not have a nuclear waste problem, because they reprocess their fuel.

  7. Jordan, I am afraid you exaggerate. “reprocessing” is a complex endeavor and all of the various versions leave plenty of waste… though some versions do reduce the net amount of poisonous plutonium.

    Cell p2p systems won’t happen without arm-twisting from the federal government. See me complain about why that doesn’t happen!

    There’s a livelier discussion/comments section in the version of this blog that is at

    Thrive on guys!

    With cordial regards,

    David Brin

  8. There are plenty of mesh network designs that could be used for broadcast messaging. Providing cell users with a 911 emergency beacon call that provides location to anyone who cares to follow you (like twitter). Mesh emergency broadcasters could even post cancellations as they are rescued.

    There have been several technical presentations on Thorium reactors that you can find on Google video and Youtube that are even better than Yucca mountain for cooling off the dangers of our cooling pools. “Spent” fuel that is too politically impalatable to reprocess in the US can slowly be fed into these non critical, low pressure reactors.

    China isn’t nearly as scared to try this once prototyped reactor as we are, and the higher safety of the designs is increasing interest after we’ve exposed the dangers of critical fuels losing containment.

  9. I’m a technology skeptic. To me, a cell phone is a convenience, not a necessity, so there’s no reason to require anything to be added to them. Such gadgets are like music players. If there’s a demand for a new function or application, the market will provide it. Otherwise, leave it alone.

  10. Janus Daniels

    The irony of reading, “If there’s a demand for a new function or application, the market will provide it,” on the Internet, a government project that overwhelmed all market online services by providing a function that any of the market online services could have provided years earlier.
    The “market” does some things well and some things badly. That’s why we also have governments.
    The cell providers turtled; we need to push them.

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