“Nuclear power is an important part of our future.” President Obama on Day Six of the Fukushima Disaster
That future is filled with jeopardy on many fronts for all of us, but the anxiety is now especially acute in reactor communities with General Electric’s Mark 1 and Mark 11 reactors. These vintage reactors are identical, or near identical to, the three GE reactors that failed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan two years ago, releasing massive amounts of radiation that, to date, has contaminated over 12 percent of Japan’s land mass and left hundreds of thousands of people exposed to long-term radioactive contamination.
Dismissing pleas from citizen groups in local communities where the GE Fukushima-style reactors operate in the U.S. and ignoring expert testimony from independent nuclear engineers, the NRC voted earlier this month against a plan to require utility owners to upgrade nuclear plant filtering systems with vents — so-called “radiation scrubbers” — intended to reduce (not eliminate) the levels of radiation released from the plant when the vents are opened during a severe accident.
The nuclear industry’s Congressional allies fought the proposal — “Safety gains should be significant enough to outweigh additional costs” to be paid by industry, said Representative John Shimkus (IL), chairman of an Energy and Commerce subcommittee — while Sen. Barbara Boxer (CA), in a letter sent to the NRC last month, wrote, “The tens of millions of Americans who live near the affected reactors located in 15 states should not face additional delays.”
“This is not just a Fukushima-Daiichi issue–the issues in the United States are in some ways much worse,” warned Arnie Gundersen, a week before the vote was taken, in the kick-off presentation at a symposium on the Fukushima disaster held in mid-March at the New York Academy of Sciences in New York City. It was sponsored by the Helen Caldicott Foundation and Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Gundersen is a former nuclear industry engineer turned whistleblower, and his ongoing reports over the last two years on the Fukushima disaster in Japan (here) repeatedly raise warnings about the GE reactors and their vulnerability to accidents.
The main difference between US and Japanese GE plants is the extreme amount of highly radioactive spent fuel stored in reactor spent fuel pools, which are located five stories above the reactors. The U.S. spent fuel pools in GE’s Fukushima-style reactors each contain more irradiated fuel than the total in all four reactor pools at the Fukushima plant.
Following the initial news reports of explosions at the Fukushima plant inside the GE reactor containment buildings, stories quickly appeared reporting that federal nuclear safety regulators who licensed the reactors knew about their design flaws but did not to stop GE from selling them.
“Scientists in the United States recognized in 1965 that this Mark 1 had design flaws,” Gundersen said. But GE threatened to pull out of the commercial reactor business if forced to make costly design changes. Gundersen recalled a comment by Glenn Seaborg, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1961 to 1971, who said in an interview years later: “I didn’t think we had the power to stop them.”
“Think about that,” said Gundersen. “This is the United States government and it didn’t have the power to stop General Electric’s faulty design in 1966.”
At the time both GE and Westinghouse were in fierce competition for top place in the new commercial reactor industry. GE was willing to take a loss on sales of its Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor — and it did. “GE lost millions,” Gundersen said. (“Our people understood this was a game of massive stakes and that if we didn’t force the utility industry to put these stations on line, we’d end up with nothing,” a GE VP told Fortune Magazine in an interview in 1970.)
AEC documents reveal that federal safety experts recommended banning the Mark 1’s pressure suppression containment system and cited its vulnerability to an explosion that would follow a loss-of-coolant accident.
The concerns were dismissed by Joseph Hendrie, then the AEC’s top safety regulator who was later appointed NRC chairman. In a 1972 memo, Hendrie thought such an action “could well be the end of nuclear power,” and would “create more turmoil than I can stand thinking about.”
“So the turmoil that Hendrie chose to avoid in 1972 became the turmoil that Japan suffered 40 years later,” Gundersen said.
But for GE, the sun shines bright. Despite the fact that its reactors at the Fukushima plant brought “a steady stream of allegations suggesting that problems were fixed ad hoc, or in some cases not at all,” GE is home free under Japanese laws, according to the recent Greenpeace report, “Fukushima Fallout: Nuclear Business Makes People Pay and Suffer.”
Because Japan’s nuclear accident law limits liability to TEPCO and blocks victims from going after TEPCO’s suppliers, “all suppliers that were involved in the Fukushima nuclear power plants, including GE, Hitachi and Toshiba, are currently exempted from responsibility for the March 11 disaster,” the report states.
Fukushima’s victims also face a three-year time limit on applications for compensation. “Sixty-seven years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki there are still people who claim their health has been harmed. Three years is clearly not long enough,” said Yasushi Tadano, a Tokyo-based lawyer who filed a compensation lawsuit against TEPCO last year.