Busting the nuclear industry’s spin on nuclear disasters

Fukushima and the institutional invisibility of nuclear disaster, Ecologist, John Downer 20th December 2014

The nuclear industry and its supporters have contrived a variety of narratives to justify and explain away nuclear catastrophes, writes John Downer. None of them actually hold water, yet they serve their purpose – to command political and media heights, and reassure public sentiment on ‘safety’. But if it’s so safe, why the low limits on nuclear liabilities?

Speaking at press conference soon after the accident began, the UK government’s former chief science advisor, Sir David King, reassured journalists that the natural disaster that precipitated the failure had been “an extremely unlikely event”.

In doing so, he exemplified the many early accounts of Fukushima that emphasised the improbable nature of the earthquake and tsunami that precipitated it.

A range of professional bodies made analogous claims around this time, with journalists following their lead. This lamentation, by a consultant writing in the New American, is illustrative of the general tone:

” … the Fukushima ‘disaster’ will become the rallying cry against nuclear power. Few will remember that the plant stayed generally intact despite being hit by an earthquake with more than six times the energy the plant was designed to withstand, plus a tsunami estimated at 49 feet that swept away backup generators 33 feet above sea level.”

The explicit or implicit argument in all such accounts is that the Fukushima’s proximate causes are so rare as to be almost irrelevant to nuclear plants in the future. Nuclear power is safe, they suggest, except against the specific kind of natural disaster that struck Japan, which is both a specifically Japanese problem, and one that is unlikely to re-occur, anywhere, in any realistic timeframe

An appealing but tenuous logic

The logic of this is tenuous on various levels. The ‘improbability’ of the natural disaster is disputable, for one, as there were good reasons to believe that neither the earthquake nor the tsunami should have been surprising. The area was well known to be seismically active after all, and the quake, when it came, was only the fourth largest of the last century.

The Japanese nuclear industry had even confronted its seismic under-preparedness four years earlier, on 16 July 2007, when an earthquake of unanticipated magnitude damaged the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant.

This had led several analysts to highlight Fukushima’s vulnerability to earthquakes, but officials had said much the same then as they now said in relation to Fukushima. The tsunami was not without precedent either.

Geologists had long known that a similar event had occurred in the same area in July 869. This was a long time ago, certainly, but the data indicated a thousand-year return cycle.

Several reports, meanwhile, have suggested that the earthquake alone might have precipitated the meltdown, even without the tsunami – a view supported by a range of evidence, from worker testimony, to radiation alarms that sounded before the tsunami. Haruki Madarame, the head of Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission, has criticised Fukushima’s operator, TEPCO, for denying that it could have anticipated the flood.

The claim that Japan is ‘uniquely vulnerable’ to such hazards is similarly disputable. In July 2011, for instance, the Wall Street Journal reported on private NRC emails showing that the industry and its regulators had evidence that many US reactors were at risk from earthquakes that had not been anticipated in their design.

It noted that the regulator had taken very little or no action to accommodate this new understanding. As if to illustrate their concern, on 23 August 2011, less than six months after Fukushima, North Anna nuclear plant in Mineral, Virginia, was rocked by an earthquake that exceeded its design-basis predictions.

Every accident is ‘unique’ – just like the next one

There is, moreover, a larger and more fundamental reason to doubt the ‘unique events or vulnerabilities’ narrative, which lies in recognising its implicit assertion that nuclear plants are safe against everything except the events that struck Japan.

It is important to understand that those who assert that nuclear power is safe because the 2011 earthquake and tsunami will not re-occur are, essentially, saying that although the industry failed to anticipate those events, it has anticipated all the others.

Yet even a moment’s reflection reveals that this is highly unlikely. It supposes that experts can be sure they have comprehensively predicted all the challenges that nuclear plants will face in its lifetime (or, in engineering parlance: that the ‘design basis’ of every nuclear plant is correct) – even though a significant number of technological disasters, including Fukushima, have resulted, at least in part, from conditions that engineers failed to even consider.

As Sagan points out: “things that have never happened before, happen all the time”. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 are perhaps the most iconic illustration of this dilemma but there are many others.

Perrow (2007) painstakingly explores a landscape of potential disaster scenarios that authorities do not formally recognise, but it is highly unlikely that he has considered them all.

More are hypothesised all the time. For instance, researchers have recently speculated about the effects of massive solar storms, which, in pre-nuclear times, have caused electrical systems over North America and Europe to fail for weeks at a time.

Human failings that are unrepresentative and / or correctable

A second rationale that accounts of Fukushima invoke to establish that accidents will not re-occur focuses on the people who operated or regulated the plant, and the institutional culture in which they worked. Observers who opt to view the accident through this lens invariably construe it as the result of human failings – either error, malfeasance or both.

The majority of such narratives relate the failings they identify directly to Fukushima’s specific regulatory or operational context, thereby portraying it as a ‘Japanese’ rather than a ‘nuclear’ accident.

Many, for instance, stress distinctions between US and Japanese regulators; often pointing out that the Japanese nuclear regulator (NISA) was subordinate to the Ministry of Trade and Industry, and arguing that this created a conflict of interest between NISA’s responsibilities for safety and the Ministry’s responsibility to promote nuclear energy.

They point, for instance, to the fact that NISA had recently been criticised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for a lack of independence, in a report occasioned by earthquake damage at another plant. Or to evidence that NISA declined to implement new IAEA standards out of fear that they would undermine public trust in the nuclear industry.

Other accounts point to TEPCO, the operator of the plant, and find it to be distinctively“negligent”. A common assertion in vein, for instance, is that it concealed a series of regulatory breaches over the years, including data about cracks in critical circulation pipes that were implicated in the catastrophe.

There are two subtexts to these accounts. Firstly, that such an accident will not happen here (wherever ‘here’ may be) because ‘our’ regulators and operators ‘follow the rules’. And secondly, that these failings can be amended so that similar accidents will not re-occur, even in Japan.

Where accounts of the human failings around Fukushima do portray those failings as being characteristic of the industry beyond Japan, the majority still construe those failings as eradicable.

In March 2012, for instance, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace issued a report that highlighted a series of organisational fallings associated with Fukushima, not all of which they considered to be meaningfully Japanese.

Nevertheless, the report – entitled ‘Why Fukushima was preventable’ – argued that such failings could be resolved. “In the final analysis”, it concluded, “the Fukushima accident does not reveal a previously unknown fatal flaw associated with nuclear power.”

The same message echoes in the many post-Fukushima actions and pronouncements of nuclear authorities around the world promising managerial reviews and reforms, such as the IAEA’s hastily announced ‘five-point plan’ to strengthen reactor oversight.

Myths of exceptionality

As with the previous narratives about exogenous hazards, however, the logic of these ‘human failure’ arguments is also tenuous. Despite the editorial consternation that revelations about Japanese malfeasance and mistakes have inspired, for instance, there are good reasons to believe that neither were exceptional…………..

Plant design is unrepresentative and/or correctable

Parallel to narratives about Fukushima’s circumstances and operation, outlined above, are narratives that emphasise the plant itself.

These limit the relevance of accident to the wider nuclear industry by arguing that the design of its reactor (a GE Mark-1) was unrepresentative of most other reactors, while simultaneously promising that any reactors that were similar enough to be dangerous could be rendered safe by ‘correcting’ their design.

Accounts in this vein frequently highlight the plant’s age, pointing out that reactor designs have changed over time, presumably becoming safer. A UK civil servant exemplified this narrative, and the strategic decision to foreground it, in an internal email (later printed in the Guardian [2011]), in which he asserted that

“We [The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills] need to … show that events in Japan, whilst looking dramatic, are all part of the safety processes of this 1960’s reactor.”

Stressing the age of the reactor in this way became a mainstay of Fukushima discourse in the disaster’s immediate aftermath. Guardian columnist George Monbiot (2011b), for instance, described Fukushima as “a crappy old plant with inadequate safety features”.

He concluded that its failure should not speak to the integrity of later designs, like that of the neighboring plant, Fukushima ‘Daini’, which did not fail in the tsunami. “Using a plant built 40 years ago to argue against 21st-century power stations”, he wrote, “is like using the Hindenburg disaster to contend that modern air travel is unsafe.”

Other accounts highlighted the reactor’s design but focused on more generalisable failings, such as the “insufficient defense-in-depth provisions for tsunami hazards” (IAEA 2011a: 13), which could not be construed as indigenous only to the Mark-1 reactors or their generation.

The implication – we can and will fix all these problems

These failings could be corrected, however, or such was the implication. The American Nuclear Society set the tone, soon after the accident, when it reassured the world that:“the nuclear power industry will learn from this event, and redesign our facilities as needed to make them safer in the future.”

Almost every official body with responsibility for nuclear power followed in their wake. The IAEA, for instance, orchestrated a series of rolling investigations, which eventually cumulated in the announcement of its ‘Action Plan on Nuclear Safety’ and a succession of subsequent meetings where representatives of different technical groups could pool their analyses and make technical recommendations.

The groups invariably conclude that “many lessons remain to be learned” and recommend further study and future meetings. Again, however, there is ample cause for scepticism.

Firstly, there are many reasons to doubt that Fukushima’s specific design or generation made it exceptionally vulnerable. As noted above, for instance, many of the specific design failings identified after the disaster – such as the inadequate water protection around reserve power supplies – were broadly applicable across reactor designs.

And even if the reactor design or its generation were exceptional in some ways, that exceptionalism is decidedly limited. There are currently 32 Mark-1 reactors in operation around the world, and many others of a similar age and generation, especially in the US, where every reactor currently in operation was commissioned before the Three Mile Island accident in 1979.

Secondly, there is little reason to believe that most existing plants could be retrofitted to meet all Fukushima’s lessons. Significantly raising the seismic resilience of a nuclear plant, for instance, implies such extensive design changes that it might be more practical to decommission the entire structure and rebuild from scratch.

This perhaps explains why progress has been halting on the technical recommendations. It might be true that different, or more modern reactors are safer, therefore, but these are not the reactors we have.

In March 2012, the NRC did announce some new standards pertaining to power outages and fuel pools – issuing three ‘immediately effective’ orders requiring operators to implement some of the more urgent recommendations. The required modifications were relatively modest, however, and ‘immediately’ in this instance meant ‘by December 31st 2016′.

Meanwhile, the approvals for four new reactors the NRC granted around this time contained no binding commitment to implement the wider lessons it derived from Fukushima. In each case, the increasingly marginalised NRC chairman, Gregory Jaczko, cast a lone dissenting vote. He was also the only committee member to object to the 2016 timeline


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