Risk and Realities

Risk and Realities
April 8, 2011

In previous articles this year, we have discussed some of the advances in different aspects of science that we are making at Jefferson Lab. It would be nice to think that this is our primary preoccupation day in and day out. Unfortunately, that is not the case; we actually spend a good fraction of our lives addressing the different ways that reality impinges or might impinge.

At the All Hands meetings about a month ago, I mentioned the need for us to pay attention to our safety and to the safety of those around us. As I pointed out, the numbers of injuries are small. This presents a challenge for the scientist-manager. We prefer to take action based on knowledge. But if our knowledge is not perfect, we need recourse to risk management.

When we don’t know something will happen for sure, we attempt to assess the risk. Part of the estimation of the risk is to assess the probability that something will happen. The other part of the assessment is the seriousness of the consequences. When you put these things together you have the risk. The hazard assessments that we make before we start the job are essentially risk assessments. They should be in hand, or at least in mind, before starting the work. During February and early March, we were nervous about the risk of another accident, at least in part this was because we were not confident about our risk assessment. Following a suggestion from our parent company, Jefferson Science Associates, we and they checked our procedures. All seemed OK, but, in an attempt to reduce the risk a little further, through our supervisors, we propagated the discussion about the need for heightened awareness.

Another risk we are dealing with at the moment is the one that involves the budget process conducted by the Federal Government. Again, we are managing things without actual knowledge of what is going to happen. We look to the newspapers as one source of the risk analysis. I and our representatives also visit with our congressional representatives and their staff. They all have some opinion, but again, there is no certainty. This week the assessment concerns the likelihood that the Government will shut down. We need to know what are the expectations for lab operations if the Government were to shut down. “Are they forbidden? No!” Indeed, as I pointed out in an e-mail to all staff on the first day of April, we will not shut down the lab immediately; we have the appropriations in hand to operate for about a month. Of course, if the situation persists, we will need to close down our operations and render the site safe.

We are also looking at ways in which we might reduce our costs so as to provide a cushion should an eventual budget agreement force significant cuts to the lab budget for the balance of 2011. We have spoken of some of the possibilities, again in the All Hands meetings. We are asking our managers to find ways to reduce expenditures on materials and services, and in some cases reduction of scope, but necessarily, forced vacations and furloughs are also under consideration. We are conducting “what if” exercises to try and evaluate the best course to take. What if we don’t get that money? What if we can’t work that week? What if we all take the same day off? What if we all take different days off work? You should consider that such exercises might help you as an individual as well as it helps the lab. For example, what if I were to lose a full week of pay?

Finally, I would like to discuss a situation that was a risk but which became a reality. I refer to the earthquake in Japan and the subsequent tsunami. As it turns out, I am a member of the international Advisory Committee of the J-PARC facility a relatively new lab built adjacent to the nuclear reactor site at Tokai in Ibaraki Prefecture. We had a meeting of the committee in late February. The lab is on the ocean, a little north of Tokyo, but some way south of Sendai which was nearest to the epicenter of the earthquake. It is also the site of a nuclear power plant. Since the day after the event, Shoji Nagamiya, the director of the lab, has been sending out bulletins concerning the status. The lab was built to withstand a 10-meter tsunami and three meters was the reality. Most of the accelerator complex escaped serious damage. Nevertheless, the effects on the roads and exteriors are dramatic. The roads dropped by up to a meter and in one or two instances are now supported by the beam lines that pass underneath them. There is major damage to several regions of Japan and enormous loss of life. Fortunately no lives of J-PARC laboratory employees were lost, nor, in fact, any from KEK another sister lab in Tsukuba in the same prefecture but some distance from the ocean. For some of you, who experienced the passage of Hurricane Isabel through Jefferson Lab and the Virginia Peninsula, this must seem very familiar. It takes strength to react to adversity. But, in this particular case, the risk management appears to have worked. Time alone will tell, but J-PARC is discussing goals for startup of the accelerators as early as fall this year!

So risks are everywhere. Risk management is the name of the game so that we can deal with the situation when the risk becomes reality.