Category Archives: Asia

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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US TV-Parochialism from an old game book

Some of the US TV coverage of the Japan disaster was pedestrian, verging on the foolish. Hundreds of thousands homeless, tens of thousands missing, nuclear reactors melting — and at least two outlets used their precious time to produce little human interest stories — which smacked of being manufactured — about two Americans who they had found to be safe, as if that had really been in question.

NHK TV live and on the internet — is a comprehensive way of learning about the breadth of the tsunami-earthquake-nuclear story.

The premise of two pieces on CNN and NBC segments involved two cases where young family members had been unable to contact their parents back home, who
were worried. That’s fine, but it was less a case of being missing than the case of not having a telephone. Both involved young Americans who had been too busy checking on the safety of people around them than to wait in line for a hard-to-get phone call. OK, it was American and it pulled at the heartstrings; at the same time there was almost a smug look on the faces of the reporters who had hauled in the human interest.

But come on. The journalistic story at a disaster is to analyze systems, identify problems, represent the public — the American public included. How does this really affect us? What can we draw from the collapse of public systems? And what can we do to help? Human interest yes, but with a little dignity rather than old parochial formulas.

CNN continues to be the best game on U.S. mainstream TV, and they did some good work. They finally brought in an eminent nuclear specialist without an agenda, a step-up from their weekend choice, Prof. Glenn Sjoden, a nuclear advocate who is also a consultant for industry. At their best, U.S. networks also questioned the openness of Japanese officials on the nuclear story. One of the good analysts on the airways was James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Acton was concise, well spoken and authoritative. Let’s hear more of that.

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Japan: News at the Source

Other than CNN, there was a dearth of televised news in the United States shortly after the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant troubles. Most U.S. outlets don’t do news weekends very well.

The English language service of NHK, the public Japanese broadcasting Company, is a great alternative, a relatively unfettered source for comprehensive information. It is available on the Internet live and on many local TV cable and wired networks, such as Verizon. They’ve done a great job, focusing on excellent explanations of the nuclear issue and have been a source of pictures and information for American TV. Switching over the NHK directly has given a better understanding of the story.

This event apparently didn’t rate much more than the normal attention and expense of coverage by the waning U.S. broadcast news business–the allotment of television network news on the weekend is small. U.S. public television has little foreign coverage — and less since funding lapsed on World Focus, a daily international program I worked with until 2010. PBS doesn’t do live news on the weekend at all.

CNN did a typical job of covering the event — and the network has some excellent reporters. But American commercial television is often jarringly brief and superficial; bookers often don’t find the best specialists to help them. Instead of having a top academic, for example, such as Dr. Michio Kaku of City College in New York (who is a consultant for ABC, but too sparingly seen on their broadcasts), CNN relied on brief commentaries by anchors beyond the limits of their knowledge base and correspondents who had no access while in the field to their own information. They also booked a a nuclear engineering professor, Dr. Glenn Sjoden of Georgia Tech, who minimized the dangers of the nuclear power plants at Fukushima. Too much hype, he said; the radiation discussed is no more than the radiation one receives during a typical CT scan. I suspect that Professor Sjoden is somewhat of a proponent and damage controller for the U.S. nuclear industry.

NHK, by the way, is supported by public licensing fees. Anybody with a TV is supposed to pay, similar to the BBC system in the United Kingdom. The Japanese system isn’t perfect, and it has been subject to controversy, but NHK excelled in covering this story with expertise and compassion, while not sinking to the overly produced human interest and melodrama that American TV often employs.

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