Nuclear failure–Japan versus the United States

What is the difference between corporate executives in Japan and the United States? A bow and an apology.

Case in point: the nuclear power industry. On both sides of the water, executives had a choice: protect the public good and tell the truth, or just kick the problem further down the road.

In Japan, at least five of six GE Mark 1 nuclear reactors are failing and melting down, not only because of faulty design, but also because it was too expensive to deal with the problem.

Even when there is a problem — such as a catastrophic failure — officials stand up, bow deeply, apologize for the inconvenience, and continue to minimize the depth of the problem.

New York Times on the lack of information:

“Foreign nuclear experts, the Japanese press and an increasingly angry and rattled Japanese public are frustrated by government and power company officials’ failure to communicate clearly and promptly about the nuclear crisis. Pointing to conflicting reports, ambiguous language and a constant refusal to confirm the most basic facts, they suspect officials of withholding or fudging crucial information about the risks posed by the ravaged Daiichi plant.”

They should have done more than apologize. In 2008, reports the London Daily Telegraph, the International Atomic Energy Commission warned Japan about catastrophic failures at plants, should an earthquake occur.

“On earthquakes and nuclear safety, the IAEA presenter noted the Agency has officials in Japan to learn from Japan’s recent experience dealing with earthquakes and described several areas of IAEA focus. First, he explained that safety guides for seismic safety have only been revised three times in the last 35 years and that the IAEA is now reexamining them. Also, the presenter noted recent earthquakes in some cases have exceeded the design basis for some nuclear plants, and that this a serious problem [emphasis added] that is now driving seismic safety work.”

Now then, what to do about GE Mark 1 nuclear reactors in the United States? Nothing, says GE. These reactors have a 40-year proven track record.

Former employees say they have a 35-year history of troubles. ABC News quotes a former GE employee who quit over concerns about the Mark 1 reactors:

“The problems we identified in 1975 were that, in doing the design of the containment, they did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a loss of coolant,” [Dale G.] Bridenbaugh told ABC News in an interview. “The impact loads the containment would receive by this very rapid release of energy could tear the containment apart and create an uncontrolled release.”

That appears to be what is happening in at least five of six GE reactors at Fukushima after the earthquake and tsunami, exacerbated by the fact that back up diesel generators were on a bottom floor, and that spent fuel rods were not controlled after the failure.

According to the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, “There are currently 23 General Electric Mark I reactors in the U.S.–the design that exploded at Fukushima. A top Atomic Energy Commission official first proposed banning this design nearly 40 years ago.”

There it is — if and when there is a catastrophic accident in the United States, the public won’t even get the apology.

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Filed under Asia, Japan, Journalism

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