Sustained Outrage

In this photo made off NHK TV video footage, a Japan Self-Defense Force helicopter dumps water over the No. 3 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Okumamachi, Fukushima Prefecture, Thursday, March 17, 2011. The Japanese caption reads: “No. 3 unit of Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, Japan Self-Defense Force helicopter began to dump water.” (AP Photo/NHK TV)

A lengthy McClatchy Newspapers story about how Japan’s nuclear plant crisis is affecting energy policy debates here in the United States had an interesting passage quoting West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller:

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., for instance, noted that while he’s “not a big fan of nuclear power … we don’t make (decisions) out of emotion; we don’t make them because of a catastrophe in another country. So before we make the decision, let’s be thoughtful about it.”

Among the flurry of media reports coming out of the Japanese crisis, a couple of things are especially interesting.

First, there’s a New York Times story that explains:

The warnings were stark and issued repeatedly as far back as 1972: If the cooling systems ever failed at a “Mark 1” nuclear reactor, the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactor would probably burst as the fuel rods inside overheated. Dangerous radiation would spew into the environment.

Now, with one Mark 1 containment vessel damaged at the embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and other vessels there under severe strain, the weaknesses of the design — developed in the 1960s by General Electric — could be contributing to the unfolding catastrophe.

When the ability to cool a reactor is compromised, the containment vessel is the last line of defense. Typically made of steel and concrete, it is designed to prevent — for a time — melting fuel rods from spewing radiation into the environment if cooling efforts completely fail.

In some reactors, known as pressurized water reactors, the system is sealed inside a thick steel-and-cement tomb. Most nuclear reactors around the world are of this type.

But the type of containment vessel and pressure suppression system used in the failing reactors at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant is physically less robust, and it has long been thought to be more susceptible to failure in an emergency than competing designs. In the United States, 23 reactors at 16 locations use the Mark 1 design, including the Oyster Creek plant in central New Jersey, the Dresden plant near Chicago and the Monticello plant near Minneapolis.

G.E. began making the Mark 1 boiling-water reactors in the 1960s, marketing them as cheaper and easier to build — in part because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure.

American regulators began identifying weaknesses very early on.

This Monday Nov. 3, 2008 file photo shows one of Pacific Gas and Electric’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant’s nuclear reactors in Avila Beach, Calif. More than a year before an immense coastal earthquake left Japan in a nuclear crisis, the discovery of a geologic fault about a half-mile from Diablo Canyon, one of California’s seaside reactors alarmed regulators who say not enough has not been done to gauge the possible threat to the nation’s most populous state. (AP Photo/Michael A. Mariant, File)

Then there was this piece from The Huffington Post:

As the world’s attention remains focused on the nuclear calamity unfolding in Japan, American nuclear regulators and industry lobbyists have been offering assurances that plants in the United States are designed to withstand major earthquakes.

But the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which sits less than a mile from an offshore fault line, was not required to include earthquakes in its emergency response plan as a condition of being granted its license more than a quarter of a century ago. Though experts warned from the beginning that the plant would be vulnerable to an earthquake, asserting 25 years ago that it required an emergency plan as a condition of its license, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission fought against making such a provision mandatory as it allowed the facility to be built.

ProPublica reported on the concerns expressed by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., about whether the U.S. would be ready to properly respond to a major nuclear emergency:

In his letter to Obama, Markey wrote that officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and EPA who briefed his staff were confused about their roles and about which agencies should be taking the lead.

“One Agency official essentially told my staff that if a nuclear incident occurred, they would all get on the phone really quickly and figure it out,” Markey wrote.

The New York Times also had this piece about the 50 workers who were staying at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station to try to avert a catastrophe:

The few details Tokyo Electric has made available paint a dire picture. Five workers have died since the quake and 22 more have been injured for various reasons, while two are missing. One worker was hospitalized after suddenly grasping his chest and finding himself unable to stand, and another needed treatment after receiving a blast of radiation near a damaged reactor. Eleven workers were injured in a hydrogen explosion at reactor No. 3.

By contrast, The Associated Press gave us this picture of the Japanese nuclear power industry:

Behind Japan’s escalating nuclear crisis sits a scandal-ridden energy industry in a comfy relationship with government regulators often willing to overlook safety lapses.

Leaks of radioactive steam and workers contaminated with radiation are just part of the disturbing catalog of accidents that have occurred over the years and been belatedly reported to the public, if at all.

The legacy of scandals and cover-ups over Japan’s half-century reliance on nuclear power has strained its credibility with the public. That mistrust has been renewed this past week with the crisis at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant. No evidence has emerged of officials hiding information in this catastrophe. But the vagueness and scarcity of details offered by the government and Tepco — and news that seems to grow worse each day — are fueling public anger and frustration.

The United States, Japan’s close ally, has also raised questions about the coziness between Japanese regulators and industry and implicitly questioned Tokyo’s forthrightness over the Fukushima crisis. The director of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the U.S. ambassador this week issued bleaker assessments about the dangers at the plant than the Japanese government or Tepco.

Competence and transparency issues aside, some say it’s just too dangerous to build nuclear plants in an earthquake-prone nation like Japan, where land can liquefy during a major temblor.

“You’re building on a heap of tofu,” said Philip White of Tokyo-based Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center, a group of scientists and activists who have opposed nuclear power since 1975.

Finally, my friend Roger Witherspoon had this great bit of retrospective on his Energy Matters blog:

For the most part, David Lochbaum’s analyses of the escalating problems at the Fukushima Daiichi complex in Japan are in the dry, relatively understated tone of an engineer who has spent nearly 40 years working on nuclear safety issues.

But once in awhile, discussing the interlocking meltdowns in the Mark 1 reactors and their companion spent fuel pools, his Tennessee cadence speeds up and carries a tone with a trace of anger.

“I don’t feel bad,” he said. “I did all I could to avoid this. The folks at the NRC are the ones who should be feeling bad. The reason I’m at the Union of Concerned Scientists today is because of a spent fuel pool fire.”

The year was 1992 and Lochbaum, working for Enercon, the nuclear engineering consulting firm, had established a reputation as the go-to guy to bring systems into compliance with regulatory requirements and industry standards. He was part of a team evaluating the capabilities of the twin reactors at the Susquehanna River Nuclear Power Station in Pennsylvania, which was seeking permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to increase their power and operating temperatures.

“Susquehanna is very similar to the plants in Japan,” recalled Lochbaum. “But it is much bigger. My partner, Don Prevatte, was looking at safety systems and meltdown scenarios in the reactor and I was looking at them in the spent fuel pool system. What we found was that there was a problem with the spent fuel located inside the containment building.

“If there was a reactor accident, the environment produced by the reactor automatically triggers a spent fuel pool accident. And, conversely, if there is a spent fuel pool accident, it automatically triggers a reactor accident. And since they are both in that confined space, the radioactive environment created by one interferes with you being able to get to the other.”

A man is screened for radiation exposure at a shelter after being evacuated from areas around the Fukushima nuclear facilities damaged by last week’s major earthquake and following tsunami, Wednesday, March 16, 2011, in Fukushima city, Fukushima prefecture, Japan. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)