Japan: Events Leading Up to the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

Mar 16, 2011 1:38pm

As our thought and/or prayers go out to the people of Japan, it’s worth a review of some of the issues bubbling up in the press about events leading up to the Fukushima Disaster:

1)  Fukushima’s Record

On June 17, 2010, a reactor at Fukushima I lost electricity and, according to Bloomberg News, “saw a dangerous drop in cooling water.”

Iwaki City council member Kazuyoshi Sato says TEPCO's president didn’t adequately investigate the 2010 incident.

“Tokyo Electric and the government’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency had too much faith and confidence in the safety of the plant and were lax in their response,” Sato said.

In addition, the Wall Street Journal reports on TEPCO’s spotty safety record:  

In 2002, TEPCO told the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency that in 1991 and 1992 the company “falsified the results of safety tests on the containment vessel of the No. 1 reactor, which is now one of three reactors that workers are struggling to keep from overheating…Five top executives resigned after the company admitted to having falsified safety."

In 2003, after “acknowledging the systematic cover-up of inspection data showing cracks in reactors,” TEPCO shut down all of its nuclear reactors for inspections.

In 2007, after an earthquake, TEPCO’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant spilled radioactive water into the Sea of Japan and released radiation into the atmosphere – but TEPCO initially told the public no radiation had been released,

2)  The General Electric Mark 1 Containment Vessel Was Long Considered to Have Weaknesses

The New York Times reports that in 1972, a safety official with the Atomic Energy Commission, Stephen Hanauer, recommended that General Electric’s “Mark 1” nuclear reactor system be discontinued because it was unsafe. The smaller containment design made it more “susceptible to explosion and rupture from a buildup in hydrogen.”

The “Mark 1” nuclear reactor was developed in the 1960s by General Electric. Twenty-three reactors at 16 locations in the U.S. use the Mark 1 design,

ABC News’ Matt Mosk reports that 35 years ago, “Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric resigned from their jobs after becoming increasingly convinced that the nuclear reactor design they were reviewing — the Mark 1 — was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident.”

In the 1980s, per the New York Times, an official with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Harold Denton, said that Mark 1 reactors had a “90 percent probability of bursting should the fuel rods overheat and melt in an accident.”

“Several utilities and plant operators also threatened to sue G.E. in the late 1980s after the disclosure of internal company documents dating back to 1975 that suggested that the containment vessel designs were either insufficiently tested or had flaws that could compromise safety,” the Times reported. “In the late 1980s, all Mark 1 reactors in the United States were also retrofitted with venting systems to help reduce pressure in an overheating situation.”

3) Who’s Watching the Watchers?

As Lee Ferran repots for abcnews.com, in 2009,according to a Wikileaked cable, U.S. officials slammed Tomihiro Taniguchi, former executive director of Japan's Nuclear Power Engineering Corporation and the former Deputy Director General for the IAEA's Department of Nuclear Safety and Security as "a disappointment" partly because of Japan's nuclear safety practices.

"Taniguchi has been a weak manager and advocate, particularly with respect to confronting Japan's own safety practices, and he is a particular disappointment to the United States for his unloved-step-child treatment of the Office of Nuclear Security," said the document, posted on the website for British newspaper The Guardian. "This position requires a good manager and leader who is technically qualified in both safety and security."

Iouli Andreev, the Russia nuclear accident specialist who directed the clean up of Chernobyl as the director of Spetsatom, told Reuters: "After Chernobyl all the force of the nuclear industry was directed to hide this event, for not creating damage to their reputation. The Chernobyl experience was not studied properly because who has money for studying? Only industry. But industry doesn't like it."

"The Japanese were very greedy and they used every square inch of the space. But when you have a dense placing of spent fuel in the basin you have a high possibility of fire if the water is removed from the basin," Andreev said, also arguing that the IAEA is too close to the corporations building and running nuclear plants.

"It is a situation of quiet panic. I know this situation," he said. "Discipline is the main thing in the industry but the emergency service requires creativity, requires some kind of even fantasy and improvisation."

-Jake Tapper

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