People I have spoken to in Japan tell me that prior to the Fukushima Diiachi ordeal, they had never heard of the controversey surrounding US large core nuclear reactors.
They had never heard of the controversey surrounding, in particular the GE boiling water reactor design as it unfoldin the decades preceding the nuclear disaster in Japan.
Cost and profit were major impediments to nuclear reactors in the early days. Government intervention, as we have seen, in aid of civil nuclear energy came in the form of the Price-Anderson Act and in nuclear regulation which was driven as much by the civil industry as it was by the regulators. Legislators were sympathetic to industry.
The GE has been singled out for decades as particularly vunlerable design. All large core multi watt reactors were viewed as inherently prone to melt down in over heat. But individuals within the regulatory structure and within GE itself saw the design as especially vunlenble.
GE itself to this day maintains the safety of its reactors. Only 3 reactors blew up, spewing radio chemicals over Japan and the world. It’s a democracy. GE can think what it likes.
By the time the GE Three came to the attention of the US public in 1976, Fukushima Diiachi had been operating for about 5 years. As far as Japan was concerned, the plant was perfectly safe and no dissenting views were officially counternanced in Japan.
The GE Three are described by Wikipedia as follows:
The GE Three are three nuclear engineers who “blew the whistle” on safety problems at nuclear power plants in the United States in 1976. The three nuclear engineers gained the attention of journalists and the anti-nuclear movement. The GE Three returned to prominence in 2011 during the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
On February 2, 1976, Gregory C. Minor, Richard B. Hubbard, and Dale G. Bridenbaugh “blew the whistle” on safety problems at nuclear power plants. The three engineers gained the attention of journalists and their disclosures about the threats of nuclear power had a significant impact. They timed their statements to coincide with their resignations from responsible positions in General Electric’s nuclear energy division, and later established themselves as consultants on the nuclear power industry for state governments, federal agencies, and overseas governments. The consulting firm they formed, MHB Technical Associates, was technical advisor for the movie, “The China Syndrome.” The three engineers participated in Congressional hearings which their disclosures precipitated.
Following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan, a series of explosions and a containment failure at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant resulted in media coverage of the GE Three. Bridenbaugh described design flaws of General Electric’s Mark 1 reactors, which account for five of the six reactors at the Fukushima 1 power plant. Bridenbaugh claimed that the design “did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a loss of coolant” and that, despite efforts to retrofit the reactors, “the Mark 1 is still a little more susceptible to an accident that would result in a loss of containment.” end quote.
The GE Three were not the only ones who saw fault in the GE Mk1.
The Nuclear Information and Resource Service has a web page devoted to these reactors and their enhanced dangers at http://www.nirs.org/factsheets/bwrfact.htm
LACK OF CONTAINMENT INTEGRITY DURING A NUCLEAR ACCIDENT
The purpose of a reactor containment system is to create a barrier against the release of radioactivity generated during nuclear power operations from certain “design basis” accidents, such as increased pressure from a single pipe break. It is important to understand that nuclear power plants are not required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to remain intact as a barrier to all possible accidents or “non-design basis” accidents, such as the melting of reactor fuel. All nuclear reactors can have accidents which can exceed the design basis of their containment.
But even basic questions about the the GE containment design remain unanswered and its integrity in serious doubt. For example, 23 of these BWRs use a smaller GE Mark I pressure suppression containment conceived as a cost-saving alternative to the larger reinforced concrete containments marketed by competitors. A large inverted light-bulb-shaped steel structure called “the drywell” is constructed of a steel liner and a concrete drywell shield wall enclosing the reactor vessel–this is considered the “primary” containment.. The atmosphere of the drywell is connected through large diameter pipes to a large hollow doughnut-shaped pressure suppression pool called “the torus”, or wetwell, which is half-filled with water. In the event of a loss-of-coolant-accident (LOCA), steam would be released into the drywell and directed underwater in the torus where it is supposed to condense, thus suppressing a pressure buildup in the containment.
The outer concrete building is the “secondary” containment and is smaller and less robust (and thus cheaper to build) than the containment buildings used at most reactors.
As early as 1972, Dr. Stephen Hanauer, an Atomic Energy Commission safety official, recommended that the pressure suppression system be discontinued and any further designs not be accepted for construction permits. Hanauer’s boss, Joseph Hendrie (later an NRC Commissioner) essentially agreed with Hanauer, but denied the recommendation on the grounds that it could end the nuclear power industry in the U.S.
Here are copies of the three original AEC memos, including Hendrie’s:
November 11, 1971: outlines problems with the design and pressure suppression system containment : http://www.nirs.org/reactorwatch/accidents/19711117-hanauer-memo-bwr-pressure-suppression-containment.pdf
September 20, 1972: memo from Steven Hanauer recommends that U.S. stop licensing reactors using pressure suppression system: http://www.nirs.org/reactorwatch/accidents/19720920-hanauer-memo-pressure-suppression-containments.pdf
September 25, 1972: memo from Joseph Hendrie (top safety official at AEC) agrees with recommendation but rejects it saying it “could well mean the end of nuclear power…” :http://www.nirs.org/reactorwatch/accidents/19720925-hendrie-pressure-suppression-concerns-end-of-nucl~1.pdf
In 1976, three General Electric nuclear engineers publicly resigned their prestigious positions citing dangerous shortcomings in the GE design.
An NRC analysis of the potential failure of the Mark I under accident conditions concluded in a 1985 report that Mark I failure within the first few hours following core melt would appear rather likely.”
In 1986, Harold Denton, then the NRC’s top safety official, told an industry trade group that the “Mark I containment, especially being smaller with lower design pressure, in spite of the suppression pool, if you look at the WASH 1400 safety study, you’ll find something like a 90% probability of that containment failing.” In order to protect the Mark I containment from a total rupture it was determined necessary to vent any high pressure buildup. As a result, an industry workgroup designed and installed the “direct torus vent system” at all Mark I reactors. Operated from the control room, the vent is a reinforced pipe installed in the torus and designed to release radioactive high pressure steam generated in a severe accident by allowing the unfiltered release directly to the atmosphere through the 300 foot vent stack. Reactor operators now have the option by direct action to expose the public and the environment to unknown amounts of harmful radiation in order to “save containment.” As a result of GE’s design deficiency, the original idea for a passive containment system has been dangerously compromised and given over to human control with all its associated risks of error and technical failure.
As we have now seen at Fukushima, Japan, in March 2011, this containment design failed catastrophically when hydrogen built up in the outer containment buildings until three of them exploded. The outer containment building was neither large enough nor strong enough to withstand these explosions.
It is in the above information that one finds the reason for the need to vent radioactive gases into the air from Fukushima Diiachi relatively early in the disaster. The then Prime Minister of Japan flew to the Fukushima site to see for himself what the situation was. The venting was major failure of containment. People were told to say indoors. Recovery operations resultant from the great quake and tsunami were interrupted and world nuclear industry used all its influence to ensure the paid media conveyed the news that such venting was “normal” and “perfectly”.
It is not. Failure of containment is a failure of the promise given, initially, to Americans in the mid 1970s. This promise was that containment would not fail. Even though overheat could result in pressure build up and core melt, so called ‘defence in depth” meant this would never happen. That was the promise. Nuclear industry may water this promise down in the light of events. But in fact as the Oak Ridge testimony and written record shows, large core reactors are inherently safe and no amount of plumbing will save then. Flash Gordons within the nuclear industry rely basically on Bob the Plumber. Increasingly at Fukushima Diiachi they rely on duct tape and buckets.
Not until Fukushima experienced the overheat, overpressure and meltdowns of three GE type reactors did the Japanese people hear of the warning given since the days when Fukushima Diiachi was just a gleam in the eyes of TEPCO and GE. The days when the land upon which Fukushima Diiachi now stands as a steaming, leaking ruin was 20 metres higher then it is today. The days when the cliffs still stood.