A 'Systems Safety' Approach to Offshore Drilling

Fire boat response crews battle the blazing offshore oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 21, 2010, U.S. Coast Guard photo

In December 2011 the U.S. Department of the Interior began auctioning offshore drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico for the first time since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 workers and resulted in the biggest accidental oil spill in U.S. history.

Macondo Well-Deepwater Horizon Blowout: Lessons for Offshore Drilling Safety says that multiple flawed decisions led to the well blowout and rig explosion, indicating a lack of effective safety management among the companies involved in the disaster. To minimize the risk of such a catastrophic accident in the future, companies need to establish a "systems safety" approach to offshore drilling and anticipate and manage risk at every level of operation -- from ensuring the integrity of wells to designing well blowout preventers that function "under all foreseeable conditions."

Blowout preventer systems commonly in use need to be redesigned, rigorously tested, and maintained to operate reliably. DOI is requiring offshore drilling companies to develop and follow procedures for meeting explicit health, safety, and environmental protection goals, which is a "good first step" toward an enhanced regulatory approach, the report says. The DOI regulatory program should be expanded to a goal-oriented risk management system that incorporates explicit regulatory review and approval of the safety-critical points in the drilling operation. And the United States should make a single government agency responsible for integrating system safety for all offshore drilling activities.

The study by the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council was funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Next-Generation Cargo Scanners


By law, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security must consider deploying next-generation radiation detection technology to scan all containers entering major U.S. ports for radiation. In response, DHS contracted with a few companies to develop advanced spectroscopic portals (ASPs) to replace the current system of radiation portal monitors and hand-held radioisotope identifiers. Concerned that DHS might be rushing to deploy ASPs without properly testing them, Congress required the secretary of homeland security to certify that the ASPs will provide a "significant increase in operational effectiveness" over existing screening devices before proceeding with full-scale procurement of the systems. If certified, ASPs could cost DHS more than $1 billion to purchase, with a possible net life-cycle cost of more than twice that figure.

Evaluating Testing, Costs, and Benefits of Advanced Spectroscopic Portals -- Final Report says that shortcomings in tests to assess the performance of ASPs impair DHS's ability to draw reliable conclusions about their likely performance. Because the estimated net cost of the new detectors exceeds that of the existing radiation monitors, ASPs should be procured only if the security benefits justify the additional investment, the report says. And DHS's draft cost-benefit analysis, completed to support such decision making, needs substantial improvement, including examining more alternatives and better evaluating how ASPs improve security.

After that report was issued, the secretary ended the ASP program as it was originally conceived and followed the report's recommendations of refocusing efforts on studying the behavior and performance of systems already acquired, on examining a broader set of alternatives to ASPs, and on developing a solid scientific foundation for future development, testing, and evaluation. The National Research Council study was funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The FBI and the Anthrax Letters

Photomicrograph of Bacillus anthracis bacteria, courtesy Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks of 2001, five people were killed and many others grew seriously ill when they were exposed to letters containing spores of the bacterium that causes anthrax. The Federal Bureau of Investigation launched an extensive investigation, focusing on the spores and their origins. The U.S. Department of Justice concluded in 2010 that Bruce Ivins, a scientist at the U.S. Army's infectious disease laboratory in Frederick, Md., was responsible for the attacks.

At the FBI's request, the National Research Council independently reviewed the scientific approaches employed by the bureau throughout its investigation. Review of the Scientific Approaches Used During the FBI's Investigation of the 2001 Anthrax Letters says that it is not possible to reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the anthrax letters based solely on the scientific evidence.

The FBI correctly identified the dominant organism found in the letters, the report says. In addition, the spores in the letters and in RMR-1029 -- a flask at the Maryland laboratory identified by DOJ as containing the parent material for the spores found in the letters -- share a number of genetic similarities. However, while this is consistent with the FBI's conclusion that the spores in the letters were derived from RMR-1029, other possible explanations for the similarities were not fully explored during the investigation. The FBI's scientific data do not rule out other possible sources.

The National Research Council study was funded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Picking Up the Space Trash

Computer-generated image of objects in Earth orbit, courtesy NASA Orbital Debris Program

Man's venture into space has greatly advanced scientific understanding of Earth and the universe, but it has also left behind an unintended consequence: space junk. Abandoned space equipment, spent rocket bodies, and fragments from past collisions in space pose a substantial long-term threat to spacecraft and astronauts.

The increasing complexity and severity of the orbital debris environment is outpacing NASA's ability to address the threat posed by objects in orbit, says Limiting Future Collision Risk to Spacecraft: An Assessment of NASA's Meteoroid and Orbital Debris Programs. Some scenarios generated by NASA models show that the debris currently in orbit has reached a point where it will continually collide and create even more debris, making space operations ever riskier.

NASA's meteoroid and orbital debris programs have used their resources responsibly, but as the agency tackles new and more complex work without a commensurate increase in resources, the agency must stretch available funds and personnel even further. The report proposes a strategic plan to help the agency prioritize and streamline its meteoroid and orbital debris-related operations.

Any long-term solution will involve removing debris from orbit, which will be a time-consuming and expensive undertaking. In addition, only about 30 percent of the objects can be attributed to the United States. As NASA considers strategies for debris removal, international diplomatic communication and political goodwill will be essential, the report says.

The National Research Council study was funded by NASA.

National Weather Service Modernization a Success

©David R. Frazier Photolibrary Inc./Science Photo Library

During the 1990s the nation spent approximately $4.5 billion to modernize and restructure the National Weather Service. As part of that effort, NWS deployed five new major technologies and reconfigured field offices around new concepts for forecasting and delivering services. Congress asked the National Research Council to evaluate these efforts.

The National Weather Service Modernization and Associated Restructuring: A Retrospective Assessment says that despite schedule and budget overruns, the investment was needed and well-spent. Science has been more greatly integrated into weather services, and new technologies such as a system to automate surface observations and a network of advanced Doppler radars have significantly increased the amount of data and information available to field forecasters, academia, the private sector, and the general public.

The modernization improved outreach and coordination with state and local governments, emergency management, and communities and dramatically enhanced forecast and warning products. However, certain aspects of weather forecasts and warning still need improvement, the report says. For example, the performance of hurricane track forecasts has seen gains, but hurricane intensity forecasts have not.

A second report, due in summer 2012, will draw on lessons learned from the modernization to advise NWS on how best to plan and implement future improvements. The National Research Council study was funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce.