Tag Archives: Japan

The Man Who Saved the World

stanislav-petrovStanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov : retired lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces.

On September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines passenger jet Flight 007 was shot down over the Sea of Japan by a Soviet fighter jet. All 269 passengers and crew, including a US Congressman, were killed in cold blood. Anti-Soviet sentiment in the United States soared. Tensions rose to heights not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Three weeks later, just after midnight, the Soviets detected a missile heading straight for Moscow. Stanislav Petrov was the duty officer at the nuclear early-warning center that morning.

At first, Petrov could not move, unable to believe what he was seeing. But with the alarm sounding, the red screen in front of him flashed “launch”. A quick check of the “Confidence Interval” showed that this alert had the highest level of reliability. There could be no doubt. The Soviet Union was under attack. A minute later, the alarm went off again, indicating that a second missile had been launched, then a third, fourth and fifth. The red screen changed from “launch” to “missile strike.” He had to pick up the phone and notify his commander, an action that would have resulted in a counter attack. World War III would have been over long before the sun rose on the charred remains of Moscow.

Petrov was not the typical Air Defense officer. He was the only one to receive a civilian education. His colleagues were all professional soldiers; taught to take orders and follow protocol. Petrov was just a little bit skeptical. This system was new and not well tested. The fact that all systems indicated “No Margin of Error” added to his skepticism. As he reasoned through the situation, he could not understand why the Americans would only send 5 missiles? That would not incapacitate the military and retribution would be brutal. With only minutes to make a decision, Petrov checked with the satellite radar technicians. They had detected no missiles.

Later, he recalled, “I knew perfectly well that nobody would be able to correct my mistake if I had made one.” He made his decision. He called the army headquarters to report the incident as a malfunction. Then he waited. A missile would strike within minutes if he’d been wrong. 23 minutes after the first alarm, he realized that nothing had happened and he’d just saved millions of lives and quite possibly, the whole world.

The false alarm was triggered by an anomalous alignment of sunlight with high-altitude clouds over North Dakota, picked up by a spy satellite at just the wrong moment in its elliptical orbit.

After hours of intense questioning, Petrov was praised for his “correct actions” and promised a reward. However, he was later reprimanded for improper filing of paperwork on the incident. As it turns out, this incident brought to light a number of other bugs in the Soviet missile detection system. To praise Petrov would have brought attention to the failures of his superiors and influential scientist. The man who saved the world was “reassigned”, took early retirement and later, suffered a nervous breakdown. Like a Dilbert cartoon gone evil.

Sometimes, doing the right thing carries bad consequences, but that is not the end of the story. Reorgs happen. The old boss is replaced by the new boss. Yuri Andropov (former Chairman of the KGP) was General Secretary of the Communist Party (A.K.A. President of the Soviet Union) at the time. Andropov was a man who looked like he’d never laughed at a joke, ever. I am sure that Petrov was convinced, from time to time, that he was in line for a lethal dose of lead to the base of his skull. But he is alive today and living in Russia.

With the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, Petrov’s story got out. Plenty of NATO nations were eager to have Petrov over for dinner and an award (and sometimes, a little money). Petrov took it all in stride. In later years he would say, “I was neither punished nor rewarded. I was doing my job.” His nonchalance and devotion to duty made it so his wife never learned of his heroic actions. She died before it became public. “She never asked. I never brought it up.”

Good Luck and Godspeed!




The Fukushima 50

As we approach the one year anniversary of the 4th strongest earthquake in recorded history, I am hearing stories about the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. More specifically, the events following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and related series of nuclear accidents last March 2011. In one story, the “Fukushima 50” was mentioned in passing.  This was a small group of volunteers who stayed behind to do what they could to bring the crisis under control. Actually there were 200 volunteers who worked in shifts of 50 people.  These brave, self-sacrificing people, who largely remained unknown, sparked a flame of curiosity in me, so I did a little research.

The daughter of one of these men stated, “I heard that he volunteered even though he will be retiring in just half a year and I my eyes are filling up with tears…. At home, he doesn’t seem like someone who could handle big jobs…but today, I was really proud of him. And I pray for his safe return.”

These were highly experienced technicians who understood how the plant worked. They could troubleshoot and resolve a wide range of problems. It was risky, not only for them, but for the future of the power plant. If this small group of highly experienced workers were to die as a result of exposure, the best people for solving the myriad problems facing this nuke would be gone. Consequences would be dire and long-lasting.

Sometimes compared to the fire fighters who rushed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, the Fukushima 50 were lionized by the worldwide press. March 11 (the day of the earthquake and ensuing disaster) is referred to as 3/11 in Japan. These men worked with little food or sleep for days on end to restore the plant to a stable condition and save their country and their loved ones. Most of them had no idea if they had family to go home to or if they’d been washed away by the tsunami. However, they continued to work on, around the clock.

Astonishingly, these men are now caught in terrible predicament, somewhat like the veterans who returned from the Vietnam War. Heroes who were treated badly by those who owed them so much. According to a recent article in Newsweek:

As the nation prepares for the first anniversary of the tsunami, the Japanese are preoccupied with radiation fears, the anti-nuclear debate, and bashing the operator of the Fukushima plant, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), for its response to the crisis. The workers who risked their lives remain faceless and nameless. Increasingly, they are also voiceless, because they fear being associated with the now-vilified power company if they speak about what went on in the plant. Six workers spoke to Newsweek on the condition that their real names not be used so they could provide a rare firsthand account of the fear and courage of these men…

As is the case with so many stories about heroes, the truth is not so glorious. Some men responded out of a sense of duty, some out of fear of shame, some were pressured or even tricked and others just needed the money. As time went by, more people showed up beyond the initial 200. These men were exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation and are still waiting for the results of the tests run on them to determine how badly they were damaged.

Once the imminent meltdown was controlled, the world lost interest but the clean-up was difficult and protracted. Today, these heroes live in fear. Fear that they will be vilified by their fellow countrymen and fear that their lives will be cut short by cancer, if they live long enough to develop it. In the Chernobyl disaster, some workers died within a matter of hours. In Japan, we do not know the extent to which these workers were exposed.

In closing, I will relate a few comments from an American worker at the Fukushima plant who was within minutes of getting off work when the earthquake hit. He worked on the turbine deck, which I can relate to. Last year, I was on the turbine deck at the Ginna Nuclear Power Plant in Rochester, NY picking up some extra money. He was the first person to feel the earthquake among his co-workers. The rest did not notice it at first but the earthquake increased in intensity and continued to rumble about 6 minutes. The spinning blades inside the turbines started to give off a “demonic scream” as they lightly touched the inside of the turbine and became increasingly deformed. A turbine deck is an enormous open room so that anything that falls, falls from a great distance. It is one of the worst places to be in an earthquake. The lights went out and they were trapped in total darkness with objects crashing around them.

On LinkedIn this week, I have been involved in a discussion on a crisis of a different sort.  Companies are using Facebook to size up potential candidates, but they are going beyond what they can get from a casual Google search. There are horror stories from MSN about government agencies, colleges and even employers who are insisting that prospective employees or students give them their Facebook password before making the offer. They are snooping into your private life, as chronicled on Facebook, to see if they want your kind around. I had one MIS professor tell me that companies can get into your Facebook account without your password.  “Even a so-so MIS or Computer Science undergrad can hack in in 30 minutes.”

There is an Onion News Network video which pokes fun at this, but what they have to say is disturbingly on target.

Facebook has actually become a treasure trove of information about you when it falls into the hands of a prospective employer. Forbes has carried a couple of articles on employers using Facebook to size you up as a good worker. Supposedly, they have moved beyond just checking for drug references or complaints about your boss. They can tell if you are going to fit in and how hard you are likely to work.

The living victims of the Fukushima disaster are dealing with their crisis by keeping quiet. They are staying as invisible as possible. In your case, as a job seeker, you can not afford to do that. This is not the first time I have alerted people that prospective employers are looking at their Facebook accounts. The reaction is almost always hostile with most people dismissing the warning as rubbish, but the evidence is mounting. The workers on the Fukushima turbine deck could not afford to simply hunker down. To survive, they had to take action. They were guided out by a dim sliver of light coming from under the door which took them out of the cavernous room. Doing nothing is not the answer. You must educate yourself about what employers are looking for when they look at your social media accounts and fill your accounts with the right sort of information.

For the Fukushima 50 interview, I refer you to the Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/03/04/heroes-of-japan-s-nuclear-disaster-all-but-forgotten.html

Good Luck and Godspeed.

James Snider
Business Development Director
817 203 4944