Fallout: When Defects Occur on a Nuclear Scale

When scientists first discovered how much potential energy was stored within the nucleus of radioactive elements, the possibilities seemed endless. That dream was permanently altered when hundreds of thousands of people were killed by that same power. In recent years, the dream of harnessing nuclear energy as a source of “safe” and “clean” electricity is becoming a nightmare. What happens when construction defects, poor quality management and human error occur on a nuclear scale?


The Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant consists of six reactors, the first of which began construction in 1967 and went online in 1971. Designed by General Electric, the plant is capable of producing 4.7 gigawatts, ranking the facility on the top 25 list of nuclear power stations. Numerous controversies and cover-ups have been associated with this power plant over the years.

In March 2011, a 9.0 earthquake occurred with an epicenter at the nearby Honshu island. Reactors 4, 5 and 6 had been shut down for routine maintenance at the time. When the earthquake hit, automatic shutdown occurred at Reactors 1, 2 and 3.

Seismic records documented ground accelerations exceeding design tolerances at Reactors 2, 3 and 5. Movement at the remaining reactors was within design tolerances.

Following the earthquake, a powerful tsunami struck the site. Again, the event exceeded design tolerances, resulting in flooding of the Turbine Building. Unfortunately, the tsunami caused other issues – most notably, the backup generators required to cool the reactors during shutdown procedures went offline.

The reaction continued out of control culminating in a dramatic explosion of hydrogen gases at Reactors 1, 2 and 3 within days of the earthquake.

We’ll come back to Fukushima in a moment…

San Onofre

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station is an iconic landmark greeting travelers on Interstate 5 near a border patrol checkpoint station. Sitting very near the Orange County border, the station’s unique contours has earned its fair share of nicknames…

Reactor 1 went online in 1968 and operated until 1992. Reactors 2 and 3 went online in the early 80s and operated until 2012. As with the nuclear plant at Fukushima, San Onofre has been plagued with problems and controversy over much of its existence.

Perhaps one of the more infamous moments in nuclear history occurred when Bechtel actually installed the 420-ton reactor backwards in 1977. In 2008, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) observed significant safety issues. By 2011, the NRC reported that no significant improvements had been made, although the violations were said to not represent serious risk.

However, another report completed in 2012 found serious issues with operations at San Onofre. And that was only the beginning. In January 2012, while Reactor 2 was shut down for routine maintenance, Reactor 3 had to be shut down due to a small leak of radiation. Further investigation found premature erosion at 15,000 locations in 3,000 tubes.

Neither reactor has been restarted since that time. In June 2013, it was announced that the entire facility would be decommissioned.

What Went Wrong?

In the case of San Onofre, I was fortunate to gain access to inside information from a technician that had worked at the facility. According to this anonymous individual, the Mitsubishi design-build team responsible for the reactor failed to take a specific type of vibration into account.

Basically in layman’s terms, it zigged when it was should have zagged.

This was substantiated by research published in the journal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in two separate articles from 2005 and 2006. While this new research ran counter to so-called conventional wisdom in the nuclear community, it was proven accurate by the premature erosion of high pressure oscillating generator tubes.

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone use the excuse, this is how we’ve always done it, I could damn near buy my own nuclear reactor…

In the case of Fukushima, the inability to respond to updated information is also to blame. The Fukushima Daiichi plant is not the only nuclear reactor facility in Fukushima. In Naraha, there is another, more modern facility known as Fukushima II (the Daichi plant is known as Fukushima I).

Fukushima II first went online in 1982. It was designed to withstand stronger forces than Fukushima I, and those considerations proved successful during the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. However, that doesn’t mean everything was perfect, as three of four reactors were in danger of meltdown when the tsunami took out seawater pumps at one reactor. Luckily, 2,000 workers were on hand to help prevent meltdown.

It is worth noting that according to the plant’s director, if the event had occurred on the weekend, only 40 employees would have been on site. The end result would have been devastating.

Cause and Effect

At Fukushima, things have not gone well over the past two years since the earthquake/tsunami. In fact, things aren’t going very well at all right now.

In April 2013, reports revealed that contaminated water was leaking from the reactor site. Specifically, officials for TEPCO (the private operator of the facilities) reported that groundwater was carrying radioactive isotopes into the ocean. Outside investigators confirm high levels of radiation at monitoring wells on-site and fish caught in the area are showing elevated levels of radioactive isotopes.

Unfortunately, transparency is not a characteristic that TEPCO is known for. As a result, researchers fear more cover-ups are taking place and that many more people, not to mention natural resources, are threatened. Calls for the Japanese government to step in and take over have so far fallen on deaf ears. According to an editorial at Japan Times:

The Economist calls Fukushima a “nightmare,” and the editors of Bloomberg deem it “ground zero” for the Abe government. Tepco’s handling of the stricken plant continues to be a litany of negligence and error, raising grave doubts over whether the company is up to the incredibly difficult and important task of decommissioning the plant.

On the International Nuclear Event Scale which rates severity of adverse nuclear events on a scale of 0 to 7, the Daichi plant event scores a solid 7. In other words, significant environmental and health impacts and widespread contamination. The Chernobyl event is the only other event in history to achieve a rank of 7.

Fortunately for the safety of those of us in Southern California, cooler heads have prevailed. Southern California Edison, the operator and primary shareholder of San Onofre, stated that it will begin decommissioning of the plant and will not attempt to restart it. The ammonia leak which preceded the shutdown in 2011 only ranked 3 on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Unfortunately for residents in Southern California, specifically for utility customers, the estimated cost to decommission the power plant is currently at $4.1 billion and could take decades. According to the Los Angeles Times:

Tons of highly radioactive fuel now stored in pools will have to cool before the rods can be moved to concrete pads outdoors. Giant pipes that extend more than a mile into the ocean will have to come out. Pieces of the reactors will have to be cut with special saws and torches that reach 20 feet into the vessels’ cooling water.

Three-foot-thick walls of steel-reinforced concrete at San Onofre will have to be fractured by mechanical shears and carefully hauled out. Wrecking balls and dynamite are seldom, if ever, used in decommissioning nuclear plants.

Debris then would be sent on special rail cars to dumps that can accommodate low-level radioactive waste. Right now, the only two such sites in the U.S. are in Utah and Texas.

An estimated 3 million pounds of spent fuel at San Onofre is so radioactive that no repository exists that can handle it, meaning it will have to remain in concrete casks on the coast for decades, if not indefinitely.

The fight for who ends up footing the bill for these shenanigans is just beginning. California Senator Barbara Boxer, head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee stated that the San Onofre situation prior to shutdown was “unsafe and posed a danger to the eight million people living within 50 miles of the plant.” She has also called for a criminal investigation, as a result.

According to my inside source, it is quite likely that a civil case will be filed against Mitsubishi. Somehow, I doubt that their insurance carrier will be anxious to pay billions of dollars in claims without a fight.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The state of nuclear power generation has been, and continues to be fraught with significant risks to health and the environment. The Simpsons’ animated portrayal of Homer as a bumbling nuclear plant operator sadly appears to be more accurate than perhaps even the show’s creator ever intended.

While the disaster at Fukushima was certainly triggered by the earthquake/tsunami, human involvement is still to blame. Independent reports indicate that numerous warnings and safety procedures were ignored at various points.

Is it possible to safely generate power from nuclear sources? We may never know. As more failures of the operators of these plants occur, the international community grows increasingly skeptical of the possibility.

With great power, comes great responsibility.


Image courtesy Timothy Tolle