Process plant safety hazards – and sensors

The following summary of recent hazardous events was the subject of my column in the May 2018 issue of the South African Instrumentation and Control journal, published by technews.co.za . See the whole issue here.

This March saw the North of Europe suffer with the ‘Beast from the East’, with freezing Siberian wind and rain, plus snow – even in the South of the UK. The high winds brought an unexpected benefit: the power generated by the many UK wind turbines reached 14GW, or 34% of the UK power demand, during several periods. The wind power capacity installed feeding the UK grid is now 19GW, the third highest in Europe: Germany has 56GW, and Spain 23GW.

Cyber attacks in the Middle East

The major concerns for Saudi Arabia are the continuing cyber-attacks.  More information is emerging about the Triton malware attack, reported in this column in February. The latest news, published on the Cyberscoop and CyberArk websites, suggest the Triton attacks failed because of a ‘flaw in the coding of the malware’. Because of the sophisticated nature of the malware, and because many of the coding indicators have not been seen before, or used by any known hacking group, the conclusion is still that extensive resources were involved in creating and testing Triton, which could only have been provided by a nation state actor. Saudi Aramco assisted in the investigations, but say the plant attacked by this virus was not a part of their operations. Triton is confirmed to be specifically targeting the Triconex safety override systems, in an overt attempt to cause catastrophic damage. The Schneider Triconex controllers are used in about 18,000 plants around the world, including nuclear and water treatment facilities, oil and gas refineries, and chemical plants. The reports also revealed that attacks in Saudi Arabia using the Shamoon virus have continued, with Sadara Chemicals and the Saudi National Industrialisation Company (Tasnee) both being attacked last year.

USA, the CSB, and Russian hackers

In the USA, the impression is that major plant incidents fall into three main categories: dust explosions, maintenance welding errors and transport pipeline fractures……

[But here it is necessary to update this “impression” after the later announcement from the US administration  – the Dept of Homeland Security recently reported that Russian hackers had been observed on machines (computers) with access to critical control systems at power plants (both nuclear and conventional). American agencies have been aware of these intrusions/attacks for the past 18 months, and they have screenshots showing the hackers had the foothold needed to manipulate or shut down power plants – both in the US and in Europe, it seems….. Plus it is also linked to the suspected Presidential election meddling.] Returning, however, to dust explosions and welding errors….

The US ten year average for grain dust explosions is 9.3, so actually 2017 was below average with only seven explosions and five fatalities in the USA. The number is steadily declining, as better training and housekeeping take effect, and with the wider use of dust explosion venting and suppression systems.

It is my personal impression that maintenance welding errors seem to be a major cause of the plant and tank explosions reported in the USA, firstly during maintenance under hot work permits, but also in plant changes, when working on tanks where flammable materials were previously stored. Despite this apparent laxity in grain handling and petrochemical plant operations, the US has a world leading accident investigation organisation, the Chemical Safety (and Hazard Investigation) Board. The CSB was established in 1998, and produces brilliant accident analysis reports, covering small hazardous events up to major disasters. They are the people that are responsible for detailing the causes of the major BP Texas City refinery explosions in 2005, and the Macondo blowout in 2010, both of which caused major loss of life. The CSB can only make recommendations for legislative changes, which then have to be considered by OHSA and US State legislative bodies. Perhaps typically, President Trump promised to abolish the CSB when he came to office last March, presumably thinking it was a barrier to free enterprise etc, but thankfully he seems to have changed his mind!

Developments in Sensors

Returning to sensors, and the current development trends, it seems there is no specific focus for developments currently. Perhaps because of the US accidents with pipeline leaks and fractures, there is considerable attention being paid to corrosion and crack monitoring, but the development of point sensors seems to not be relevant for long pipelines. At the University of California San Diego, a new ultrasonic sensor array has been built onto a flat silicone elastomer sheet, which can be wrapped round bends and corners that otherwise are difficult to inspect with flat probes. Initial applications are seen on structural steel in bridges, or for aircraft engine supports.

In Europe, ACHEMA has launched their brochures in advance of the 11-15 June expo in Frankfurt: the last event was in 2015. Focussed on process engineering for chemicals, pharmaceuticals and petrochem, maybe ACHEMA will show the future routes of sensor development – notably however, cyber-security and safety from hazards are not major topics in their agenda!

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