About This Interview
Background Briefing's Ian Masters hosts Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Energy Education for a discussion regarding the independent commission finding that Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdowns were a man-made catastrophe. The parliamentary commission’s independent report released July 5, 2012 alerts the world to the fact that these accidents were preventable and not an act of nature. Arnie Gundersen discusses how instead of learning from the Japanese disasters, the U.S. nuclear industry had the head of the NRC forced out for trying to increase safety measures in U.S. nuclear power plants with identical reactors and similar vulnerabilities as the stricken Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
IM: Hello, and welcome to Background Briefing. I am Ian Masters and today we will examine a number of stories and issues in the news. We will begin with today's release of a Japanese government inquiry into the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns, which concludes that the disasters were manmade. A long time nuclear industry insider, Arnie Gundersen, joins us to discuss how, instead of learning from the Japanese disasters, the US nuclear industry had the head of the NRC forced out for trying to increase safety measures in U.S. nuclear power plants with identical reactors and similar vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis.
Then we will look in to the politics of the critical swing state of Ohio, which President Obama visits today along with surrogates for Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Bobby Jindal. An expert on election law and civil rights, Daniel Tokaji, a professor of law at Ohio State University, joins us to discuss the unprecedented attention and money pouring into Ohio, a state with a recent history of voting irregularities.
Then finally we will go to Mexico City for an update on the disputed election recount of last Sunday's vote. Tim Johnson, the Mexico City Bureau Chief for McClatchy newspapers, joins us to discuss mounting evidence of flagrant vote buying by the PRI, whose candidate, Depenanento, won in part thanks to gift cards that were redeemed at grocery chains now with empty shelves and lots of unhappy customers who found the gift cards were only worth a fraction of what the PRI had promised them for their vote.
Joining us now is Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president who has co-ordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants around the country. He currently is Chief Engineer at Fairewinds Associates and an independent consultant on nuclear and radiation issues to the NRC, to congressional and state legislatures and government agencies and officials in the United States and abroad.
Welcome to Background Briefing, Arnie Gundersen.
AG: Hi, Thank you for having me.
IM: The Japanese Parliament have come out with a report on the Fukushima nuclear disasters, saying that they were profoundly man-made disasters, that they should have been foreseen and prevented, and mitigated by more effective human response. Pretty strong condemnation for a country with a government that has pretty much been in bed with the nuclear industry.
AG: It really was. It amazes me that they were so forthright in their assessment. It is hard to look in the mirror and describe what you see and they did a very good job of it. It is an ugly picture that they painted but it certainly was accurate.
IM: And you have consulted with the Japanese Parliament, the Diet on this. What was your sense when you talked to the people on the panel?
AG: I was over there in February and we spoke for about 3 hours and they were concerned as citizens. It was not about the power of being a regulator, although clearly they had that too. They have seen their country brought to it's knees and they really were genuinely concerned and wanted to hear the truth. So the translator I was working with said, OK, let's tell it like it is.
IM: Well one of the things that came out in the Japanese Government report on the Fukushima nuclear disaster is that they blamed cultural conventions, and a cultural reluctance to question authority in Japan. Was that ever discussed or was there a sense that that was a part of the problem?
AG: The item I spent the most time on in that area was the issue of, they knew for probably 2 decades that the plant could not withstand a tsunami of the size that Mother Nature could likely throw at it. There were independent experts outside of this nuclear priesthood that were telling the Japanese that the plant was under-designed. But it is a cloistered group and we talked about that, that within the agency that regulates the Tokyo Electric, they all agreed to sing one song, even though the experts were saying the opposite. The Japanese Diet members I spoke to, wanted to hear that. So the root cause of the accident occurring was the fact that they just did not listen to anybody who was outside of their little club. The root cause of the issue not mitigated as fast enough, is a separate cultural issue.
IM: Well let's begin with the tsunami. It is in an earthquake prone region, prone to tsunamis. It is almost incomprehensible to me that the backup generators were not built up high because if you look at all the news footage, and it is quite extraordinary the news footage of the tsunami wave just wiping out this whole town. And we have all seen these graphic pictures. All of the people on the second floor survived. It is pretty obvious that if you would have built them up a little bit they would not have been knocked out so readily.
AG: It is actually not unique to Fukushima. There were 4 different reactor sites. Fukushima-Daiichi had 6 reactors, Dai-Ni had 4, Onagawa had 3 and Tokai had one. They had between them 36 diesels. They lost 24 of them in the tsunami, so this could easily have been 14 nuclear plants in a meltdown and not the 3 that we had. They were under-designed up and down the coast, not just at Fukushima-Daiichi.
IM: Well let me just remind you once again if I may, I am speaking with Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry senior vice president who has co-ordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants in the United States and has consulted with the NRC, congressional and state legislatures, and government agencies and officials in the US and abroad, and we are talking about the Japanese government's report issued today on the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Of course, it is a bit ironic that they should announce this scathing report about a kind of culture of collusion between the government bureaucracies and the nuclear industry. Just on Sunday, the first power reactor was restarted in the town of Ojai in Fukai Prefecture. So here we are on the one hand, condemning the way nuclear power is operated in Japan and on the other hand, restarting power plants.
AG: That is frightening. Cultural issues do not get changed overnight. And in fact, they still have not separated out their regulator from the agency that it reports to, which is a promotor of nuclear power. All of the cultural issues identified in the Diet report are present right now. They are not resolved and it will be years before they will be resolved. But yet the Japanese Government just authorized the Ojai plant to start up. In light of this report, I think it certainly gives ammunition to the public and to those people who are concerned. I cannot see how Ojai can be allowed to start up, given the content of this report.
IM: But it has happened, it started on Sunday.
AG: Well hopefully they will change their mind. Even now, there are seismic experts who are telling the authorities within the Japanese government, that there are 6 faults that run directly underneath the power plant. Some of them actually cut through the cooling water pipes that are designed to cool the plant in the event of an accident. So the Japanese Government has ample warning of the risk of Ojai and yet they are still starting it up. I do not think anything has changed in Japan despite this report.
IM: Well, there are also reports coming out, Arnie Gundersen, that the actual earthquake, not just the tsunami but the earthquake damaged the reactors at Fukushima.
AG: You can actually see that. Unit 4 has buckled. On the bottom there is a bulb, and it is about a 2" bulb, on a couple of the sides on the bottom and it is one third of the way up. Structural engineers call that a first mode Euler strut buckle and it only happens from an earthquake. So, here is Tokyo Electric acknowledging the building has bowed, but yet at the same time they are saying that it withstood the structural stress that it was placed upon. The bigger story there is that if they admit that their seismic codes are wrong, it affects obviously every nuclear plant in Japan, but also every nuclear plant in the world. It is an area where the industry wants to avoid scrutiny.
IM: Well, let's turn to the rest of the world, and particularly the United States, Arnie Gundersen, since you are a former nuclear industry senior vice president who has co-ordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants here in the United States and know that you are very familiar with the Westinghouse boiling water reactor, several of which melted down at the Fukushima-Daiichi plant following the earthquake and tsunami. We have of course here south of us in Los Angeles, San Onofre that has been closed now for 4 months because of excessive wear on pipes that were, just as they had re-installed a series of generators and apparently they stuffed a lot of extra steam pipes in to get a greater output and those steam pipes had unusual and rapid wear, resulting in a radiation leak. But there are 2 things about that plant that seem similar to Fukushima. One is, actually Fukushima is a little inland, San Onofre is right on the bluff facing the Pacific Ocean. They built a 30 foot cement wall to prevent a tsunami from hitting the plant, but there is nothing to prevent the tsunami from going around the wall, which only covers the length of the plant. So that makes absolutely no sense and the diesel generators are right there in the open. So that is one question of how different are we here, particularly at San Onofre in terms of the tsunami problem. And 2, the NRC a few months ago, chastised the operators of the San Onofre plant for creating an atmosphere in which employees suffered retaliation if they reported safety concerns. So how different is that, from what we are talking about in Japan where they have a culture of collusion?
AG: Well I am an expert for Friends of the Earth on the San Onofre plant. The wall in front of the plant is 30' high at low tide but it is only 14' high at the highest tide, so essentially a 3 meter tsunami can swamp the wall.
But It is not about the diesels at San Onofre. It is about the water pumps that are right along the water. If a tsunami were to hit those pumps, even though the diesels are in fact placed much higher than they are, if you do not have the water to cool the diesel, then you will lose the diesel anyway. We call it service water. The pumps along the ocean are vulnerable to a tsunami which will have the exact same effect: you will not be able to cool the plant.
On the issue of whistleblowers, you know I consult all over the country and perhaps twice a year somebody will contact me with a concern that they do not feel management is adequately addressing. But I have been working on San Onofre now for 3 months and I have had 4 people from San Onofre contact me with concerns. I have never seen that before. Now, I have passed those concerns on to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, after making sure that the person is protected, but I have to agree based on my personal experience that there is a cultural problem in San Onofre and people are afraid to tell management the truth.
IM: Well again, that has echoes of this Japanese report, doesn't it? I mean I do not see the difference here in terms of bureaucratic collusion and don't you have the same problem with the NRC, that it is both a regulatory agency and a promoter of nuclear power?
AG: Well let's get to the cultural collusion within San Onofre first. These steam generators that had the leaks were designed in 2006, and that is exactly at the high point of their whistleblower complaint periods. They had 187 whistleblowers at San Onofre. In a comparable period, the next worse plant had about 5. So they had literally 30 times more whistleblowers at San Onofre than any other plant. At the time this generator was being designed, it is obvious that they had issues with their employees.
Now moving on to the NRC, the NRC is a captured regulator. This example just recently where the nuclear industry put pressure on the chairman of the NRC and dragged him in front of Congress. The guy resigned. All he was was a regulator trying to regulate. But the industry did not like that and through congressional pressure was able to get him thrown out. So these problems start at the top, they start at Congress. Both Democrat and Republican, they are basically pro-nuclear. And that pressure then filters down on the Commission. There has not been a commissioner in the last 20 years that hasn't been vetted and approved by NEI, which is the trade organization for nuclear power.
IM: But in the case of Gregory Jaczko who resigned under pressure, he apparently was trying to take the lessons of Fukushima into account. And the nuclear industry in this country simply wanted to pretend that Fukushima did not happen.
AG: That is right. I met with Chairman Jaczko twice in the last couple of months on San Onofre issues. And I can assure you he does not want to knee-jerk reaction shut a plant down. But he wants to apply the law when the law is applicable. And his other commissioners desperately want to keep these plants running, even if it means bending the law or ignoring the law. Now Chairman Jaczko on the issue of the Fukushima modifications was adamant that these modifications needed to be made promptly and thoroughly and industry needs to take them seriously. But yet his fellow members of the commission, and there are 5 of them, voted him down and delayed these decisions and also inserted themselves into the process where, if the staff came forward with a concern, the Commission reserves the right to overthrow it's own staff.
IM: So this commission, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the leader of which, Gregory Jaczko, was pressured out, and the White House put up a woman, I cannot remember her name, to replace him. I do not know whether she is going to be any better. But one of the bizarre things about what they complained about Jaczko was that he did not vote with everybody and the reason he did not vote with everybody was he was actually voting for safety and the rest of them were not. I mean, it is an amazing thing that they could play roulette with the American people with this evidence of what happened in Japan, and now what is happening in San Onofre. Because that was not a tsunami, something was wrong with the way they installed those new steam generators and added the extra pipes. And yet the NRC and Darrell Issa, the congressman from the district, are putting pressure to restart that reactor when it is clearly not safe.
AG: No, I think you are right. I have been reviewing lots of reports in the last month. It is amazing to me, that the NRC said they were going to do a root cause analysis and that means getting to the bottom of the problem at San Onofre. It is crystal clear to me they did not. Nor did the people at San Onofre. They dug a little bit and then when it got to an area they did not want to go in, they literally stopped analyzing and the NRC let them get away with it. I was down 2 weeks ago at a meeting down there with the exit meeting of the augmented inspection team. Anyway, the NRC was basically telling what they found. And they found that San Onofre deliberately ignored its vibration monitors. They could hear those pipes rattling and they chose to do nothing about it until the pipes broke. That was one of the findings.
The other finding was that they had a 400% error in the computer codes and they did not detect it for 6 years. So that tells me there is a gross quality assurance breakdown and a gross breakdown in the commitment to safety. You know, when you hear things rattling around in your car engine, you pull over to the side of the road, you do not wait till you blow a piston before you stop.
IM: Well, Arnie Gundersen, we started out talking about the Japanese Government's report that came out today on the Fukushima accident, saying it was a profoundly manmade disaster and that it should have been foreseen and prevented, and it's effects could have been mitigated by a more effective human response. It was held up as an example, here, to America's nuclear industry. The head of the NRC got fired because he tried to retrofit American plants, a lot of which have the same boiling water reactor that melted down in Japan. He got forced out because he was trying to do his job and trying to follow the extraordinarily dangerous precedents that Japan have shown us. And now we have an example from right near where I am speaking to you from, of a nuclear plant that has serious problems, yet the same pressure to open them. Can you explain to me the mentality of why this industry is so willing to risk American lives?
AG: Well years ago, someone coined it as a nuclear priesthood. You either buy into the orthodoxy or you are excluded from the process. And I think that is at the root of it. This is not about science. These people are committed as an orthodoxy to nuclear power. And you know it does not stop in the United States. It goes into the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency. It's charter is to promote nuclear power. But yet you will constantly hear well the IAEA says that Fukushima is safe. So the same problems we have in Japan and in the United States, are also in the International Atomic Energy Agency as well. So, I do not see an easy way out of this because there is so much money on the side of the argument to keep these plants running. I think at the end of the day, it boils down to money though, and as alternatives come along that are cheaper, these plants will stop operating. There is an excellent Associated Press piece out just today about how San Onofre may never start up because the money does not work. The cost to fix is not worth the cost of replacing them with alternative power sources. I think Wall Street at the end of the day will make the decision that the orthodoxy does not want made.
IM: Just in closing, Arnie Gundersen, the Germans have shut down their nuclear power, they are getting out of nuclear power altogether. They are in the midst of replacing it with wind and solar and they are a northern climate with a lot of clouds and not a lot of sun. So the Germans, as a result by the way of Fukushima, that was one of the things that propelled the German Government into that decision. Now Japan, the prime minister, in defending the opening of these, restarting of these reactors that were shut down since Fukushima, he says that they have basically got no choice, it is essential for their economy. Why can't the Japanese make the transition the Germans made?
AG: And actually Japan has the highest industrial power costs in the world, even with the nuclear power plants. They have essentially 9 cabals of nuclear power generators and there is no downward pressure on rates for them. The difference is the Germans shut down any plant that was built before 1978 immediately, and then they are winnowing their way off of the other dozen or so over the next 10 years. The Japanese are going cold turkey. They can make it 10 months out of the year for sure without the nuclear plants and the question is, will they be able to get through the summer? The citizens are saying we will turn off our air conditioners; we do not want the risk. But the politicians are saying, if we shut these plants down for an entire summer and our citizens get through, then oh my god, we can actually do without nuclear power. I do not think they want to face that eventuality. But then the citizens of Japan, you know, this all began with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and they are looking at it as bookends on the shelf. They had Hiroshima and Nagasaki on one end and Fukushima on the other and they want it over. Yet we are seeing the government totally resistant to the pressure of citizens and still feeling the pressure from the nuclear industry.
IM: Well, Arnie Gundersen, I thank you so much for joining us here today.
AG: Thanks for having me.
IM: Again I have been speaking with Arnie Gundersen, who is a former nuclear industry senior vice president who has co-ordinated projects at 70 nuclear power plants here in the United States. He is currently Chief Engineer at Fairewinds Associates and an independent consultant on nuclear and radiation issues to the NRC, congressional and state legislatures and government agencies and officials in the United States and abroad.