Chicago Plans for a Warmer Future

By Kim Smiley

The very existence of climate change continues to be controversial, but some cities have already decided to start preparing for a hotter future.  While the rest of the world continues to debate whether man’s impact on the world is producing climate change, the city of Chicago is already taking action to prepare for a warmer climate.

The effort to adapt Chicago to the predicted climate of the future began in 2006 under the then mayor Richard M. Daley.   The first step in the process was a model that was created by scientists specializing in climate change to predict how global warming would affect Chicago.  The output of the model shocked city planners.  Experts predicted that summers in Chicago would be like current summers in the Deep South, with as many as 72 days over 90 degrees by the end of the century.  A private risk assessment firm was tasked to determine how the predicted climate shift would impact the city.  The dire predictions included an invasion of termites, heat-related deaths reaching 1,200 a year and billions of dollars’ worth of deterioration to building and infrastructure in the city.  Chicago decided the time to take action was now.

Created by Robert A. Rohde as part of the Global Warming Art project.

Armed with the predictions, city planners began to plan how best to adapt Chicago for the warmer future.  There are a number of ways that Chicagoans are already changing how they maintain the city.  Much attention has been given to the paved spaces in the city to improve drainage to accommodate higher levels of predicted rain.  13,000 concrete alleys in Chicago were originally built without drainage and city planners are working to change this.  150 alleys have already been remade with permeable pavers that allow 80 percent of rainwater to filter to the ground below.  City planners are also changing the mix of trees that are planted to make sure they are selecting varieties that can withstand hotter temperatures.  Air conditioning is also being planned for Chicago’s public schools, which have been heated but not air conditioned until now.

Time will tell whether the steps Chicago is taking will prove necessary, but the Chicago’s adaption strategy is an interesting case study in a nation still debating the existence of global warming.

When trying to select the best solutions to a problem such as in this case, the Cause Mapping method of root cause analysis can be an effective way to organize all the information.  A Cause Map detailing the many causes of a problem may make it easier to select the most cost effective and efficient means of preventing a problem.  A Cause Map can also be adapted to fit the scope of the problem.  In this example, a Cause Map could be built to detail the issue of preparing Chicago for a warmer future or a bigger Cause Map could be built to tackle the problem of global warmer on a larger scale.

To read more about the Chicago Climate Action Plan, please visit their website.

Nuclear Waste Stalemate in US

By Kim Smiley

America’s 104 commercial nuclear reactors produce about 2,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel each year.  The United States currently has no long term solution in place to deal with spent nuclear fuel.  The end result of this stalemate is that that there is more than 75,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel at 122 temporary sites in 39 states with nowhere to go.

Much of the nation’s spent fuel is currently stored in pools near operating nuclear reactors or near sites where reactors once were. Recent events at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan have sparked discussion about the potential safety risk of having so much fuel stored near operating reactors creating a situation where one single event can trigger a larger release of radiation.  To make things more complicated, storage pools at US plants are more heavily loaded than the ones at the Fukushima reactors.  Additionally, the pools will reach capacity at some point in the not so distant future and the fuel will have to be moved if the US plans to continue operating nuclear reactors.

How did we get in this situation?  The problem of no long term solution for spent nuclear fuel can be analyzed by building a Cause Map.  A Cause Map is a visual root cause analysis that lays out the causes that contribute to a problem in an intuitive, easy to understand format. Click on “Download PDF” above to view a high level Cause Map of this issue.

Looking at the Cause Map, it’s apparent one of the causes of this problem is that the plan for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository was canceled without an alternative plan being created.  Yucca Mountain Repository was planned to be a deep geological repository where nuclear waste would be stored indefinitely, shielded and packaged to prevent any release of radiation.  The Yucca Mountain Repository was canceled in 2009 for a number of reasons, some technological and some political.  Environmentalists and residents near the planned site were very vocal about their opposition to the selection of Yucca Mountain site for the nation’s repository.

A Blue Ribbon Commission of experts appointed by President Obama recently presented their recommendations of how to approach this problem.  Their proposal was to develop one or more sites where spent reactor fuel could be stored in above ground steel and concrete structures.  These structures could contain fuel for decades, allowing time for a more permanent solution to be developed.  These structures would not require any cooling beyond simple circulation of air and they could be stored at locations deemed safe, with the lowest risk of earthquakes and other disasters.  Hopefully the recommendations by the commission are the first step to solving this problem and developing a safe long term storage solution to the nation’s nuclear waste.

The Side Effects of Fracking: Explosive Water?

By ThinkReliability Staff

America’s push for clean energy has certainly been a source of intense debate – the safety of off-shore drilling, the hidden costs of ethanol subsidies, even the aesthetics of wind farms.  New evidence is set to increase the intensity on yet another topic – the debate over hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing is a process where internal fluid pressure is used to extend cracks, or fractures, into a rock formation.  It can occur in nature, but in man-made operations fractures are made deep in the earth by pumping fluid (mostly water) and a proppant (such as sand) out the bottom of a well.  The proppant prevents the fracture from closing back up after the injection of fluid stops.  Chemicals are sometimes added to the pumping fluid to aid in the process.  These fractures allow the gas or liquid trapped in the rock formation to flow back through the fracture, up the well and out for production.

More commonly known as “fracking”, the technique is used to release natural gas from shale rock formations.  These formations, especially common on the East Coast and in Canada, have provided thousands of new, well-paying jobs.  Fracking has allowed natural gas companies to access enormous reserves of natural gas, previously thought inaccessible and prohibitively expensive to drill.  In fact fracking has allowed drillers to tap what is potentially the world’s largest known reserve of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits, stretching from New York to Georgia.

As with any new technology however, there are potential consequences.  Lawmakers and regulators have debated the safety of the largely unregulated fracking industry, but with little definitive evidence either way…until now.  A study by Duke University has concluded that fracking does indeed lead to methane contamination in drinking water.  Methane is the primary component in natural gas and is not lethal to consume.  However, high concentrations are explosive.

The study determined that fracking causes methane to leak into drinking water.  Water sources within a kilometer were found to have significant levels of methane, more than 17 times higher than wells located further from drilling sites.  Furthermore, it was determined that the source of the methane was the much older methane released from the bedrock, versus newer methane produced naturally in the environment.

The exact reason for this is unclear, but a Cause Map can lay out the possible areas needing further investigation.  For instance, the frack chemicals might enter the water supply accidentally during the drilling process.  Spills could also contaminate surface water, or chemicals could migrate into the water supply.

The study indicates that chemical migration is most likely what’s happening.  Surface spills, which have happened, are not a major contributor to the wide-spread methane contamination; so that cause can be left in the Cause Map but won’t be investigated further for our purposes.  Furthermore, the study produced no evidence that the drilling process itself was causing the contamination; so that block can be crossed off the Cause Map.

That leaves one possibility – migration.  The chemicals (including methane) could migrate in two different ways – through the well casing or through the bedrock.  The study’s authors felt it was unlikely that chemicals were migrating thousands of feet through bedrock, so migration from well casings experiencing high pressure flow  is more probable.  While more evidence is needed, it is possible that the well casings are weakened by the fracking process which pushes sand through the casings at high pressure.

An EPA study looks to definitively determine fracking’s impact on drinking water, and specifically human health.  However that study is not scheduled to be completed until 2014.  Until then, lawsuits and tighter regulations are likely to dominate headlines.

Gaming Network Hacked

By Kim Smiley

Gamers worldwide have been twiddling their thumbs for the last two weeks, after a major gaming network was hacked last month.  Sony, well known for its reputation for security, quickly shut down the PlayStation Network after it learned of the attacks, but not before 100+ million customers were exposed to potential identity theft.  Newspapers have been abuzz with similar high-profile database breaches in the last few weeks, but this one seems to linger.  The shut down has now prompted a Congressional inquiry and multiple lawsuits.  What went so wrong?

A Cause Map can help outline the root causes of the problem.  The first step is to determine how the event impacted company goals.  Because of the magnitude of the breach, there were significant impacts to customer service, property and sales goals.  The impact to Sony’s customer service goals is most obvious; customers were upset that the gaming and music networks were taken offline.  They were also upset that their personal data was stolen and they might face identity fraud.

However, these impacts changed as more information came to light and the service outage lingered.  Sony has faced significant negative publicity from the ongoing service outage and even multiple lawsuits.  Furthermore customers were upset by the delay in notification, especially considering that the company wasn’t sure if credit card information had been compromised as well.

As the investigation unfolded new evidence came to light about what happened.  This provided enough information to start building an in-depth Cause Map.  It turns out that network was hacked for three reasons.  Sony was busy fending off Denial of Service attacks, and simultaneously hackers (who may or may not have been affiliated with the DoS attacks) attempted to access the personal information database.  A third condition was required though.  The database had to actually be accessible to hack into, and unfortunately it was.

Why were hackers able to infiltrate Sony’s database?  At first, there was speculation that they may have entered Sony’s system through its trusted developer network.  It turns out that all the hackers needed to do was target the server software Sony was running.  That software was outdated and did not have firewalls installed.  With the company distracted, it was easy for hackers to breach their minimal defenses.

Most of the data that the hackers targeted was also unencrypted.  Had the data been encrypted, it would have been useless.  This raises major liability questions for the company.  To fend off both the negative criticism and lawsuits, Sony has been proactive about implementing solutions to protect consumers from identity fraud.  U.S. customers will soon be eligible for up to $1M in identity theft insurance.  However other solutions need to be implemented as well to prevent or correct other causes.  Look at the Cause Map; notice how that if you only correct issues related to fraud, there are still impacts without a solution.

Sony obviously needs to correct the server software and encryption flaws which let the hackers access customer’s data in the first place.  Looking to the upper branch of the Cause Map is also important, because the targeted DoS attack and possibly coordinated data breach jointly contributed to the system outage.  More detailed information on this branch will probably never become public, but further investigation might produce effective changes that would prevent a similar event from occurring.