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by James Corbett
28 February, 2012
During the nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan’s northeast last March, the world watched in horror as conditions in the plant deteriorated by the day. Despite public reassurances that the situation was under control, we now know that three of the plant’s reactors actually began meltdown within hours and that plans were being made at the highest levels of the Japanese government to evacuate Tokyo, the world’s most populous metropolitan area.
In effect, the world was given a crash course in cascading nuclear failure.
What many do not know is that the damaged reactors were designed by General Electric, rely on 40-year-old containment technology, and are substantially similar to 32 reactors currently operating around the world, including 23 in the United States.
In the 1950s, GE, in conjunction with the Idaho National Laboratory, developed a new type of light water nuclear reactor, called a boiling water reactor, or BWR. In the Boiling Water Reactor, the reactor core is used to turn water into steam, which drives a steam turnine before being condensed back into water and fed back into the reactor core.
Over the years, various designs of containment vessels have been used on the boiling water reactors. The kind used in the damaged Fukushima reactors is known as Mark I, and was developed in the 1960s as an inexpensive containment structure for plant operators.
The Mark I containment system has been a focus of fierce criticism for at least 40 years. In 1972, Atomic Energy Commission safety official Stephen Hanauer recommended that the Mark I design be discontinued, arguing that the small containment design left it vulnerable to explosions from hydrogen buildup. At the time, soon-to-be-chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Joseph Hendrie said acceptance of the Mark I technology was so widespread that “reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power.”
In 1976, three GE Engineers, Gregory C. Minor, Richard B. Hubbard and Dale G. Bridenbaugh resigned from their engineering jobs at GE’s nuclear energy division, citing design flaws in the Mark I that they had been asked to review. Partly as a result of this criticism, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued guidelines in 1980 for upgrading the Mark I design. More changes to the reactors were advised in the late 1990s. When asked if the changes addressed the design issues, Bridenbaugh, one of the so-called GE Three who resigned over the plans, admitted that “the Mark I is still a little more susceptible to an accident that would result in a loss of containment.”
Still, in 1986, then top safety official at the NRC Harold Denton estimated a 90% probability that the Mark I containment would fail in the event of a core meltdown, as has taken place at three of the reactors in Fukushima Daiichi.
In fact, the Fukushima situation appears to fit the nightmare scenario for the Mark I to a T: The plant lost power. Emergency generators were flooded and inoperable. The cores of Reactors 1, 2 and 3 went into full meltdown. Several hydrogen explosions occurred. All the while, radioactive fluids and gases leaked into the ocean and belched into the atmosphere.
One of the figures who has been working tirelessly to inform the public about what happened at Fukushima and what it says about the safety of these Mark I reactors is Arnie Gundersen, a licensed reactor operator with 39 years of nuclear power engineering experience. In May of last year, he issued a video report via fairewinds.com, the website of his advisory company, Fairewinds Associates, describing in technical detail how it was not only the poor design of the Mark Is that led to the Fukushima disaster, but the criminal complicity of government regulators in failing to enforce their own policies and regulations on these aging reactors, not only in Japan, but in the US as well.
Last year, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission responded to a petition to shut down the nations BWR Mark Is by holding a series of public hearings into the issue, including testimony by Gundersen and others. One of the speakers, Michael Mariotte of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service demonstrated during his testimony at the hearings, summed up the core issues involved in the use of these Mark I reactors this way.
In December, the NRC safety panel investigating the Mark Is accepted a number of the requested actions of the petitioners and moved to review the issue of whether or not all federal licences for the Mark Is should be revoked.
One of the men behind this petition, and the organizer of a broader campaign to draw awareness to the Mark Is around the world, is Paul Gunter of BeyondNuclear.org. He joined me earlier this week to discuss the broader anti-nuclear movement that is arising in the wake of Fukushima and the events that are being planned for next month’s one year anniversary of the meltdowns.
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