Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Triumph Of State Control

It was a long natural-gas pipeline; when the techs running it noticed a pressure drop, they didn't want to have to fill out forms or take any blame, so they just cranked the pressure back up and went back the normal routine. They didn't want to make a fuss. It was probably some minor thing, right?

Too bad is wasn't a defective pump or a problem at the source. It was a leak. It leaked out for three hours. The pipeline was in close proximity to a railroad and when two trains passed through the cloud, there was, unsurprsingly, a spark.

What resulted was possibly the most powerful non-nuclear explosion ever, estimated at 10 kilotons: the Ufa train disaster.

It happened in 1989, in what was then the Soviet Union.

Yes, another Chernobyl-esque triumph of communism! Not caused by earthquake, tidal wave or even gloom of night; brought about by guys who followed the written procedure, didn't question orders and weren't about to wake up the boss unless things were totally out of control -- and who, by so doing, let things get far past that point.

Remember that, next time someone hectors you about eeeeevil capitalism.

10 comments:

R2K said...

Was it really communism? No similar accidents in the US or Europe? That is dangerous road to take because blaming accidents on communism is a convenient way to think they can't happen here. It is happening now with the nuclear power plants (despite the fact that Japan is a hyper-capitalist country.)

Yes gas explosions happen in the USA also:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_London_School_explosion

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_City_Refinery_explosion

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_City_Disaster

Industrial accidents happen all the time. We have to try and prevent them. The USSR was in bad shape, but it did try to prevent accidents also. There were millions of hard working people, including thousands of scientists and engineers, who did the best with what they had.

Roberta X said...

R2K: Can you tell me in what way the cause of Chernobyl differs from the cause of the Japanese nuke-plant mess? Do you understand they are significantly different?

Communism, fascism, runaway bureaucracy -- any system that grinds down individual initiative suffers a certain kind of accident a lot more often than happens in places where the boss can't have you sent to a gulag for questioning his authority.

There were plenty of smart, brave Russians doing difficult, dangerous things. Plenty of them in work camps, too.

You want a nice feel-good American example? The Challenger booster failure. The result of a government-run, politically-driven program. Go read Dr. Feynman's account of what he discovered when asked to look into it; you may find it illuminating.

Anonymous said...

There are capitalists who don't want to fill out long forms either.

Antibubba

Joshkie said...

Her point was large state run bureaucracies, which we are one, leads to inefficiency and error. Don't worry about labeling it. The more rules and regulation a business has the harder it is to get anyone to do anything.

1. If I do anything I have to fill out paper work.
2. If I don't do it exactly like the book say ill be in trouble.
3. If something comes up not covered by the book I don't know what to do.

You couple this this with union employee protectionism; where you can't fire incompetent employees because they don't want to lose those dues coming in, and you get a real recipe for disaster.

Josh

Roberta X said...

Or timid and/or politially-motivated middle-managers, or-- But very well put, Joskie, and more succinct that I would have been.

Highly-centralized systems have more of these problems, a lot more.

Nathan said...

Well, as the old saw goes: "In Soviet Russia, they pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work."

Preferably with a bottle of vodka handy, I suspect.

docjim505 said...

May I add to Joshkie's list:

4. If I do something right that's out of the ordinary and it works, I won't be rewarded. If I do something that's out of the ordinary and it doesn't work, I'll be punished.

5. If I point out that something is out of the ordinary, I'll be ignored. If I continue to point it out, I'll be labeled a crank or a troublemaker and eventually be punished.

At any rate, R2K has a good point: these things can happen under a capitalist system or under a communist system. Indeed, they can happen anywhere that dull conformance to rules is rewarded and sugar-coating or hiding unpleasant facts is the norm.

The difference is that, in a capitalist system, the market will eventually eliminate such organizations due to their inherent (usually accelerating) inefficiency. In a communist system - or any government bureaucracy, really - this sort of "natural selection" is prohibited. cf. TSA.

Stretch said...

After the seismographs alerted the US to the blast it took a while to reposition satellites. (No Senator. We don't have live 24 hour coverage of the entire Soviet Union. Tom Clancy writes FICTION!)
The debris field was enormous. ImInt analysts had a difficult time figuring out what they were looking at. The Fuel/Air explosion was so damaging rail cars were reduced to shards. Rail trucks (the wheeled chassis cars sit upon) were spotted 6 miles from any tracks. Structural damage was seen as far away as 30 miles.

DirtCrashr said...

Sounds a bit like our State Monopoly PG&E, torching a neighborhood up in Burlingame. It was so huge everyone thought it was an airplane crash at first, and then PG&E claimed it wasn't their gas pipeline AND COULDN"T SHUT IT OFF - but nobody else even HAS a gas pipeline.
Now they can't find the records of what repairs they did or whether it's a seamless welded pipe, or where all the pipelines actually run. That's all classified or something so the Russians and Chi-Coms don't find out.
PG&E's not a capitalist enterprise and it's too big to fail. The "market" is severely distorted by it's bureaucratic existence - like a huge gravitational body it creates its own distortions in space-time.

Ed Foster said...

A former aquaintance was living in Siberia, I believe in the late '80's, when a train carrying hundreds of surplus Russian missles to China exploded, taking the entire ammo depot with it and gutting most of a city. I don't know if it ever made the papers over here.

Her comment was quite fatalistic, accepting that vodka and bureaucracy do that sometimes. With Russians in high risk jobs, survival is regarded as a matter of luck.

If memory serves, the commander of the Red Banner fleet commented a few years ago that the flagship's reactors were on the verge of a nuclear explosion.

The Russians dumped so much nuclear waste in estern Poland that large areas of the country will be uninhabitable for centuries, and when it became obvious that the Kursk had torpedoed itself, the typical comment in Russia was Nyetchevo, roughly "You can't win, so why try".