Friday, March 25, 2011

Nuclear Safety

When the first news broke about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, an enterprising reporter asked the head of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant whether he was worried about plant safety. “We don't have many tsunamis in Vermont” was the flippant reply.

That has been the response of the nuclear industry throughout. They have told us not to worry. In recent weeks they have mobilized a major lobbying campaign in Congress to maintain a favorable public attitude towards nuclear power.

But we need to take this issue seriously. Accidents do happen and as Chernobyl and now the Japanese nuclear plants demonstrated, some of those accidents are horrifying.

Nuclear plants are not all the same. GE developed one design in the 1960 whose containment structure is less robust than that of other designs. GE recommended it as being cheaper. But should there be a nuclear accident with a failure of the cooling system, radiation may well escape into the atmosphere. “Nuclear watchdogs and some politicians say the crisis should prompt the NRC to take a harder look at aging plants like Vermont Yankee and Pilgrim that have the same design as the most compromised reactor in Japan. The design, known as a Mark 1, is considered vulnerable in part over fears that molten nuclear fuel could melt through the vessel, releasing radiation to the environment, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group” ( Boston Globe March 18, 2011) For that reason, this type of nuclear power plant has been criticized since it was first built. A number of high level GE engineers resigned in the 1970s and 1980s from the company because they regarded the GE designed nuclear plants as unsafe. The reactors in Japan, as well as the one at the Yankee plant in Vermont are all of this type—considered unsafe by experts in the industry.

Nuclear energy is a highly technical field. You and I are unable to judge whether any plant is safe. We depend on expert testers for that. But can we trust those testers? Clearly the easiest and cheapest way to certify a plant as safe is falsify results, to make up the desired numbers. Over the years there have been repeated allegations that testing of nuclear power plants is corrupt and unreliable. It now appears that those allegations are correct.

In today's Boston Globe (March 18, 2011) we read: “The destruction caused by last week’s 9.0 earthquake and tsunami comes less than four years after a 6.8 quake shut the world’s biggest atomic plant, also run by Tokyo Electric Power Co. In 2002 and 2007, disclosures the utility had faked repair records forced the resignation of the company’s chairman and president and a three-week shutdown of all 17 of its reactors. . . Nuclear engineers and academics who have worked in Japan’s atomic power industry spoke in interviews of a history of accidents, faked reports, and inaction by a succession of Liberal Democratic Party governments that ran Japan for nearly all of the postwar period.

Similar allegations have been made about the nuclear industry in the US. The most inexpensive way to meet your SQ [seismic qualification] is to lie.  The industry does it all the time. The government team I worked with caught them once, in 1988, at the Shoreham plant in New York.  Correcting the SQ problem at Shoreham would have cost a cool billion, so engineers were told to change the tests from 'failed' to 'passed. The company that put in the false safety report?  Stone & Webster, now the nuclear unit of Shaw Construction which will work with Tokyo Electric to build the Texas plant, Lord help us” (

The nuclear industry's goal is to make money. For that end they are willing to spend significant lobbying dollars to persuade Congress and the public that nuclear plants are safe, even as the Japanese experience shows that to be false. They are willing to fake testing and repair records. For the sake of their bottom line the nuclear industry is prepared to mislead all of us. We should not believe that nuclear plants are safe.