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Gulf oil spill and Fukushima nuclear plant: A challenge to humans and technology

In one year, energy disasters in the Gulf and at Fukushima point to the challenge of human control over complex technology.

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In just the past year, the world has had to contend with two major disasters in the energy sector. While the BP Gulf oil spill and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant crises differ in type, they both point to the challenge of human control over big, complex technologies that also deal with powerful forces in nature.

In the march of human progress, it’s remarkable how few calamities on the planet can be chalked up to human error with technology. Planes fly safely all over the globe (except when, for instance, they’re endangered by humans asleep in an air-traffic control tower). Natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis can cause instant and massive loss of human life.

But the world is entering a phase where technology that is becoming ever more complex could endanger livelihoods on a large scale – global warming, for instance, or breaches of cybersecurity. How does humanity control such outcomes, instead of being controlled by them?

First, it’s important to investigate when a disaster on the scale of the BP spill or Fukushima could have been avoided. Sometimes that means hitting the “pause” button, as President Obama did with his deep-water drilling moratorium and as China and Germany are doing with nuclear power. That allows time to find out what went wrong and how to fix the problem.

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