Nukewatch Quarterly Spring 2015
By Arianne Peterson
“Following the accident at the nuclear power plant, government authorities realized to their horror that their existing plans for such an emergency were too vague to address the challenges now facing them. Making matters worse, technical experts disagreed about the state of the crippled reactor and what might happen next. Some confidently asserted that events were ‘under control,’ while others warned that ongoing radioactive emissions might portend an imminent release of catastrophic proportions. More worryingly still, no one could predict the likelihood or timing of such a development confidently enough to inform decisions about ordering evacuations. Should the local population be evacuated, or would that measure only incite unnecessary panic? Proximity to the capital gave the situation extra urgency. Might it, too, have to be evacuated, with all the unfathomable costs that might entail? Without reliable measurements of the total radioactivity released to the environment or estimates of how large it might grow, policy makers had no choice but to answer these fraught questions on the basis of guesswork.”
This account of a major nuclear reactor catastrophe appeared in an April 2014 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article by Edward M. Geist, Nuclear Security Fellow at RAND. But which disaster was Geist recounting? Was it Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima? In fact, his description applies to all three. This narrative played out exactly the same way three separate times over the past thirty-six years.
As we at Nukewatch sat down to choose the content for this issue, we noticed another pattern: all three of these disasters began in the spring—Three Mile Island on March 28, 1979; Chernobyl on April 26, 1986; and Fukushima on March 11, 2011.
Thus, spring—which otherwise brings promises of new life here in the frozen north—now portends the potential self-destruction and long-lived pollution that compound the costs of nuclear power. As we ponder which of the world’s 438 nuclear power reactors might melt down next, we brace ourselves for the idea that, if this pattern holds true, the next disaster will happen in spring. If there are any more of these awful anniversaries to commemorate, we’ll have to add extra pages to every spring Quarterly.
As Geist’s narrative illustrates, there are more common elements among these three catastrophic events than their seasonal timing—similarities that should inform a public interested in protecting itself and the planet from complete devastation. The overall pattern shows clear evidence that neither can we handle nuclear technology safely, nor do we have any reason to believe we are more prepared to deal with a major “accident” (we’re unsure the term applies to an event precipitated by gross corporate and government negligence) now than we were in 1979, 1986 or 2011. Here, we review in more detail just a few of the common elements of these spring nuclear catastrophes—and their implications for future meltdowns.
Operators, regulators and corporations ignored warnings.
In the case of Three Mile Island (TMI), at least three individuals testified to the president’s Kemeny Commission after the partial meltdown with evidence that their efforts to warn operators of the likelihood for a disaster were thwarted. Two safety engineers at Babcock and Wilcox (which built TMI’s reactors), Joseph J. Kelly and Bert M. Dunn, testified that they had written numerous memos attempting to convince their supervisors to notify Babcock and Wilcox (B & W) reactor operators of the risk of a loss-of-coolant accident after a similar emergency at another B & W reactor, Davis-Besse, in 1977. Corporate officials thwarted the engineers’ attempts to let operators know what to look for—and, more importantly, exactly how to deal with such an emergency.
Similarly, an inspector for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), James Creswell, testified that he warned his supervisors just a few weeks before the accident that all B & W reactors should be shut down in order to properly address the safety concerns raised by the Davis-Besse incident. NRC officials dismissed his concerns. Also, a broken cooling valve contributed to the disaster—the eleventh such valve failure at the facility within one year. Clearly, operators should have identified and addressed this problem.
In 2003, Ukraine released more than 100 previously secret intelligence files proving that government officials knew the Chernobyl nuclear facility was flawed from the start of its operation. The files show that operating authorities ignored KGB warnings about the use of sub-standard building materials and technicians ignoring safety regulations, with twenty-nine accidents occurring between 1977 and 1981. A 1979 KGB report stated, “According to operational data, there were deviations from design and violations of technology procedures during building and assembling works. It may lead to accidents.” After an inspection of the nuclear facility just one week before the meltdown, engineers recommended the reactors be shut down because conditions at the facility were so dangerous.
In his May 2011 book Fukushima Meltdown: The World’s First Earthquake-Tsunami-Nuclear Disaster, Takashi Hirose refutes claims by the Japanese government and Fukushima Daiichi reactor owner Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) that the devastation caused by the earthquake and tsunami to the six-reactor complex was “beyond expectation.” In August of 2010, Hirose published a warning that was partly an attempt to amplify the conclusions of a well-known seismologist, Ishibashi Katsuhiko. Katsuhiko had been warning of the potential for what he called a genpatsu shinsai (“nuclear-power-plant-earthquake-disaster”) since the late 1990s. Hirose asserts that Katsuhiko’s work was so well-known it would have been impossible for Tepco officials not to have seen it. In Fukushima Meltdown, Hirose asks, “If I, neither a scholar nor a specialist, was able to foresee this, and the nuclear power specialists from Tepco and from the government’s nuclear-related agencies were not, then for what do they exist?”
Evacuation efforts were grossly inadequate.
The government never issued an evacuation order to protect residents living near the Three Mile Island facility, and Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh held off for two days before issuing an evacuation advisory for pregnant women and preschool children living within five miles of the reactors. Former nuclear industry executive Arnie Gundersen maintains that under the Nucular Regulatory Commission’s own rules, an evacuation should have been ordered on March 28, the first day of the disaster, due to calculated radiation exposures in the town of Goldsboro, Penn. reaching 10 rems per hour. Given the authorities’ inability to measure the nature and amount of radioactive elements released, the decision not to evacuate is inexcusable at best, if not an act of reckless endangerment, based on long-term death toll estimates.
Soviet officials did not begin evacuating residents from around Chernobyl until 36 hours after the explosions that spewed radioactive particles from Unit 4 around 1:30 a.m. on April 26, 1986. Though residents could see the graphite fire burning on the roof of the facility and many felt ill within hours of the explosion, they were not immediately informed of the disaster, and the evacuation of the eighteen-mile exclusion zone around the reactors did not begin until 2:00 p.m. on April 27. Health workers and volunteers did not start distributing potassium iodine, which blocks the absorption of radioactive iodine in the thyroid, until more than 24 hours after the initial release. Measurements in the city of Pripyat, next to the reactor complex, showed street-level radiation as high as 6.5 roentgens per hour (an exposure to 500 roentgens in five hours is usually lethal for human beings), with 50 percent of the radioactive particles containing radioactive iodine-131. Residents were told that they only needed to evacuate for three days—when in reality most were never able to return. Authorities later reported they had to scrap their original and grossly inadequate emergency plans and start from scratch during the catastrophe, in order to reformulate how to handle the evacuation of 135,000 people.
After the tsunami hit Japan’s shores in the late afternoon of March 11, 2011, the government knew that all six of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi were in danger of melting down due to the loss of coolant at the facility. Yet, just like their United States and Soviet counterparts, Japanese officials moved slowly in evacuating residents, only completing the first evacuation—from within a radius of less than two miles around the facility—the next morning. Officials kept slowly expanding the evacuation zone, and only after the massive explosion in reactor 1, which occurred at 4:30 p.m. on March 12, did they expand the zone to a radius of 12.5 miles. Months later, on July 20, the US State Department restated its advisory that US citizens keep 50 miles away from the wrecked reactor complex. Later, a former senior US diplomat in Japan disclosed that the original plan of evacuating all 90,000 US citizens in Tokyo at the time of the meltdown was rejected not because it was unnecessary but because “it could have … caused panic among the Japanese.”
Officials could not—or would not—adequately measure, track or publicize radioactive releases.
In all three nuclear disasters, evacuation and other disaster mitigation efforts were significantly hindered by uncertainty about “source term,” or the total amount and type of radiation released. Though operators of nuclear facilities usually have a good understanding of which isotopes are inside a reactor, the nature of the source term can change upon release depending on the means by which they escape containment and their interaction with the surrounding environment. Nuclear experts have had difficulty reconstructing the source term, even after catastrophic events, and predicting them in advance is almost impossible. Essentially, this means that even the best emergency response plans are still based on guesswork.
During the meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima as well as the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, radiation monitors in the immediate vicinity of the reactors either maxed out or were destroyed (23 of 24 monitors at Fukushima were wrecked by the giant earthquake). We have only computer modeling to determine how much radioactive material was dispersed to the winds during the melting. Our understanding of the total radiation released—and thus, potential long-term health and environmental impacts—is extremely limited and difficult to predict. This uncertainty enables regulators and industry lobbyists to assume a minimum amount of damage and resist citizen-driven attempts for more rigorous safety standards.
Though technology for measuring the amount and nature of isotopes released during a radioactive release is still dangerously inadequate, operators at Fukushima did have access to a modern system for tracking the direction of the radioactive plume in real time (dubbed System for Prediction of Environmental Emergency Dose Information, or SPEEDI). It is more sophisticated than those available at TMI and Chernobyl decades earlier. But we operate nuclear reactors in a political and economic atmosphere, rather than just a scientific landscape. Just having access to this data was not incentive enough for Japanese officials to make use of it to protect their own populations.
In a lengthy investigative August 2011 report, the New York Times found that Japanese authorities deliberately endangered even the most vulnerable individuals—women, children, infants and the elderly—by at first denying and then covering up its own data about wind direction and radioactive fallout. According to the report, Japan’s SPEEDI radiation tracking program, “had been churning out maps and other data hourly since the first hours after the catastrophic earth quake and tsunami.” But officials withheld this data until March 23, even from rescue workers and local authorities, in violation of the prime minister’s own nuclear disaster manuals. This meant that the residents of the town of Namie, which is outside of the evacuation zone, carried on life as usual for three days while being exposed to the highest levels of radiation in the area—directly under the radioactive plume that, it turns out, was visible on the government’s real-time maps.
We keep operating nuclear reactors the same way, expecting different results.
Reactor operators and government officials around the world continue to ignore warning signs that more nuclear reactor meltdowns are imminent. In the United States, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) continues to extend the operating licenses and approve power “uprates” at its aging fleet of nuclear reactors for as much as twenty years beyond their originally planned forty-year lifetimes. In January of this year, the NRC rejected a petition, signed by 10,000 members of the US public and submitted by watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, asking the agency to suspend operating licenses at the US’s twenty-two General Electric Mark I boiling water reactors. These reactors are identical to those that melted down at Fukushima Daiichi and, experts have long argued, they have major design flaws.
Though the US State Department recommended an evacuation radius of 50 miles for its citizens near the Fukushima disaster zone, the NRC refuses to require evacuation and communication planning for areas more than 10 miles from our 99 operating reactors. This kind of negligence could lead to a disaster with an impact on a scale we have never seen—for example, if one of the reactors at New York’s Indian Point melted down. Indian Point is less than 40 miles from Manhattan and New York’s roughly 8.5 million residents, who live close enough to be severely affected by a radiation release—but not close enough that the government requires anyone to plan for their evacuation. Similarly, should a meltdown occur at the Pilgrim nuclear facility in Massachusetts, over 200,000 Cape Cod inhabitants could be forced to flee toward the source of the radiation in order to escape a radioactive plume, through the bottlenecks of only two bridges that connect them with the mainland.
How many more times must we relive this horror story before we decide to shut down all nuclear reactors for good?