Catastrophe Prevention Research Laboratory’s Pavel Rombakh shares his thoughts on the problem of so-called man-made disasters.
Man-made disasters or anthropogenic hazards are defined as often catastrophic events caused by either human action or inaction. Here, Pavel Rombakh, general manager of the Edmonton, Washington-based Catastrophe Prevention Research Laboratory, offers his professional insight into the matter.
Asked first to highlight an example of a man-made disaster, Rombakh initially points toward the I-35W Mississippi River bridge, an eight-lane bridge which, in 2007, suffered a catastrophic failure, killing 13 people and injuring 145.
“At the Catastrophe Prevention Research Laboratory,” says the expert, “we’ve analyzed the condition of the bridge based on reports from 1994 to 2007 which show that it was actually doomed as early as 2004, contradicting the conclusion of the official government investigation.”
Rombakh also suggests that rather than being an exceptional case, such catastrophes could become the rule, rather than the exception, unless the necessary action is taken to identify the main causes of such incidents.
Another notable and high profile example of a man-made disaster, says Rombakh, is the 1986 Challenger space shuttle tragedy in which seven astronauts died. “At the time, President Reagan appointed a commission, with NASA chairman William Graham inviting famous physicist Richard Feynman to join,” he reveals, “and who went on to identify the cause of the disaster.”
Feynman, however, refused to sign the official report, as his recommendations were not included as a part of it, according to Pavel Rombakh. “His report was only accepted as an annex,” he explains, “and it’s entirely possible that we would never have known about it, except that in 1988, when Feynman was terminally ill and dying, he dictated his last book, titled ‘What Do You Care What Other People Think?’ and in which he revealed further details of his recommendations.”
So, were Feynman’s comments taken into account? “Only partly,” says Rombakh, “as in 2003, the disaster surrounding the space shuttle Columbia occurred, killing a further seven people.”
Elsewhere in the world, and shortly after the earlier Challenger accident, another high profile man-made disaster—at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near the city of Pripyat, Ukraine—was to occur. “According to the American researcher Lee Davis, man-made disasters are mainly caused by human factors, due to stupidity, carelessness, and selfishness,” reveals Rombakh. A common link, therefore, he says, between the Challenger space shuttle tragedy and the Chernobyl disaster, is not only an error in operations but also how matters were addressed in the aftermath.
“In his analysis, Feynman accused NASA of having made mistakes, and pointed out how to avoid them in future,” Rombakh explains, “and the same thing happened in the USSR, following the Chernobyl disaster.”
Numerous physicists and the creators of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, he says, long insisted on ‘an objective assessment of causes of the disaster,’ yet the government refused. “Only one person was killed directly as the result of the actual failure of the nuclear power plant reactor itself, but many thousands more people later died as a result of radiation sickness,” adds Rombakh.
“Feynman,” he continues, “concluded his final book with the words, ‘Nature cannot be fooled.'”
Pavel Rombakh goes on to suggest, then, that human attitude is much to blame for such disasters, as is corporate culture and greed, with huge regional, national, and international organizations desperate to protect themselves at any cost. “One solution to the problem of man-made disasters, therefore,” he adds, wrapping up, “is to strive to eliminate the human factor, using modern technology, tools, and methods of analysis for diagnostic assessment in order that we put an end to such catastrophes going forward.”