Arnie Gundersen, an earnest, eloquent and incisive critic of the nuclear power industry, speaks with the assured authority of a former insider. A licensed power plant operator and former senior vice president of a nuclear engineering company, he has worked on 70 different nuclear power sites, and holds a Master’s degree in Nuclear Engineering. As chief engineer of Fairewinds Associates Inc., an energy consulting firm based in Vermont, USA, he has become well known for his hard-hitting nuclear safety analyses in interviews and videos produced by Fairewinds Energy Education, especially following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster.
At a full-house public lecture in Kyoto on Sept. 3rd, 2012, organized by Green Action in conjunction with several other local NGOs, Arnie lived up to his reputation for forthright condemnation of the nuclear status quo – although he took time first to express his appreciation of the efforts made by the nuclear plant workers who stayed on the job and prevented additional meltdowns and even more catastrophic releases of radiation.
“They are my heroes and I believe they saved Japan and the world from far worse impact by their actions.”
Outlining a series of predictable technical failures in the wake of the quake and tsunami, exacerbated by design inadequacies and non-implementation of existing safety precautions, he summarized the lecture’s theme as follows:
“The real lesson from the catastrophe at Fukushima Daiichi was that as bad as it was, it could have been much, much worse, for Japan and the whole northern hemisphere.”
Conventional wisdom holds that the two factors leading to loss of control of the reactors and the subsequent meltdowns were loss of on-site power and flooding of back-up diesel generators. Arnie pointed out that the vital seawater cooling pumps used to cool the nuclear cores in all coastal nuclear plants (their connection to the “Ultimate Heat Sink”) are always located on the seaward side of the installations. Those at Fukushima were destroyed by the tsunami, and could not have functioned even if the electricity supply had been immediately restored.
“This problem didn’t just happen at Daiichi. In fact it happened at Daiichi, Daini, Onagawa and Tokai.”
The vulnerability was already known, but had been ignored.
“In February I went down to the Hamaoka plant. I met with emergency officials in the town that’s right next to Hamaoka [Omaizaki]. The city officials told me that two days after Fukushima Daiichi accident, engineers from Hamaoka came to them and told them of a plan to prevent these pumps being destroyed. At first the officials were very happy that a plan had been developed, but they looked at the date on the drawing and the drawings had been drawn up years before. Engineers had known for years that these pumps were vulnerable, yet it took a tsunami and the destruction of the pumps to cause Chubu [Electric] to go out and propose changing. About a month after the Daiichi accident, I got an email from a retired Japanese pump engineer. He said the Japanese pump industry has known these pumps were vulnerable since at least 1978.”
Arnie discussed why the U.S.-designed General-Electric Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor, the type installed at Fukushima Daichi, is the one considered by the industry and regulators to be most likely to fail, with problems that have been recorded since 1972, concerning the inadequate size of its containment, and the excessive number of designed openings in the containment vessel, leading to risk of leakage under pressure.
“The nuclear reactor core is only about 4 meters across and 4 meters high, and inside that small space is the power from 3 million horses. The beauty of nuclear power is that a large amount of power can be generated in a very small space. The problem with nuclear power is that when things go wrong, there is an enormous amount of heat in a very small location.
“In the late 1980s there was a report from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC] that said that if a Mark I reactor had a meltdown, there was an 85% chance that the containment would also fail. Three days after the nuclear accident, in a telephone call that was taped, an executive in the NRC blurted out that the Mk 1 containment was the worst containment in the world. So if the nuclear industry knew this, three days after the accident, why did we allow 23 reactors in the United States, and the Daiichi units here to continue to operate before the accident?
“The BWR design has the control rods come in from bottom, and because of that, there’s more than 70 large holes at the very bottom of the nuclear reactor. If there were a meltdown, and the nuclear core were to lay in the bottom of the nuclear reactor, it was very likely, in a unit like Daiichi, that the hot nuclear fuel would leak through because of the 70 holes at the bottom.
“The other problem with the Mark I design is that the nuclear fuel pool is outside the containment, and unprotected. This is the problem that is a major concern with the spent fuel pool at Fukushima Daiichi Unit 4. The concern in March and April 2011 is the same concern as now. That pool remains a sleeping dragon.”
“The reason that the American NRC ordered an evacuation was because of the possibility of a fuel pool fire at Unit 4. In 1997, the American Brookhaven National Laboratory did a study that showed that if a nuclear fuel pool were to boil dry, it would release enough radiation to cause the permanent evacuation of an 80-kilometer circle… They also know from this study that there would have been hundreds of thousands of cancers caused by a fuel pool fire, depending on population density.
“Nuclear fuel rods are made of a material called zircaloy, which burns in air with a fire that burns in air with flame that water cannot put out. Two weeks before the accident at Fukushima Daiichi, Sandia National Laboratory ran a test to see if a nuclear fuel bundle could really burn in air. Nuclear heat was simulated with electric heaters, and the nuclear fuel began to burn.
“The Daiichi Unit 4 pool does not have one bundle [of fuel rods], it has 1,500 bundles. There is more cesium in that pool than was ever released into the Earth’s atmosphere from all of the 700 nuclear bombs exploded in over 30 years of nuclear weapons testing. There is the concern that scientists around the world have today, that the Daiichi Unit 4 pool is still in jeopardy of boiling dry, and of course if that occurs, a massive evacuation would be necessary.
“I showed this slide [of burning fuel rods] to Diet members last Friday, and afterwards
Tokyo Electric [TEPCO] engineers came into the room and presented their plan to empty the nuclear fuel from the Daiichi Unit 4 pool.
“I asked them, ‘I realize that you hope and believe that water will always be in the storage pool, but what are your plans? Have you prepositioned any chemicals to put out a fuel pool fire in the event that you’re wrong?’
“Tokyo Electric’s response amazed me. They said, ‘There’s nothing in the fuel pool that can burn.’
“I think this really gets to the root of the problem within [Japan’s] Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency [NISA] and within Tokyo Electric. It’s the inability to imagine that bad things can happen in nuclear power plants. The same company that could not imagine a tsunami, now cannot imagine a fuel pool fire.
“Outside experts have been pushing Tokyo Electric to quickly get the nuclear fuel out of the nuclear fuel pool and into a much safer location on the ground. Tokyo Electric’s schedule however shows that this will not be begun until December of 2013, and won’t be completed for three years after that. I think this shows a lack of a sense of urgency, and it also shows a lack of engineering innovation. If Tokyo Electric engaged international experts that were outside of the people it normally talks with, that we could develop a plan that would more quickly get the nuclear fuel out of the pool and reduce the chance of a fuel pool fire to Japan and frankly, to the entire northern hemisphere.”
Arnie also described a significant but widely-unknown difference between the explosions that occurred at Daiichi Units 3 and 4.
“The Unit 3 explosion was a ‘detonation,’ meaning that the shockwaves traveled faster than the speed of sound. No containment in the world can withstand a detonation shockwave. No one knows what caused this, but the important point is not how this happened, but that it happened. If this were to happen at Ooi, or any of the other plants in Japan or in the world, the containment would fail.
“To focus on just these technical problems really misses the broader issue, and that is that nuclear power can have 40 great years, and one really bad day.
“What I have learned is that nuclear power can be made safe — or it can be made inexpensive so that we can in fact afford it — but nuclear power cannot be both inexpensive, and safe.
“Tokyo Electric knew that a tsunami wave greater than 4 meters could hit Daiichi. The reason that Tokyo Electric didn’t prevent against that wave is they didn’t want to spend the money. We call this designing for the design-basis accident. The nuclear industry is designing for design-basis accidents that they can afford to prevent. But what the earthquake at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa and the tsunami at Fukushima Daiichi have shown us is that Mother Nature doesn’t necessarily do what engineers anticipate.
“So what I’ve learned is that if we were to spend the money necessary to design against an earthquake as bad or worse than the one at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa or to design against a tsunami worse than the one that hit Daiichi, major accidents, we can’t afford to build nuclear power plants, and alternative power sources become much more cost-effective.
“When Japanese regulators allowed Oi to restart, they really believed that the chance of a meltdown was about one in a million. If you take a million and divide it by the 400 nuclear power plants in the world, you come up with the probability of a nuclear accident of about once every 2,500 years. But what has history shown us? History has shown us we had a meltdown at Three-Mile Island, we’ve had a melt-down at Chernobyl, and we’ve had three melt-downs at Daiichi, in 35 years.
“So history is telling us there’s a meltdown every 7 years and NISA is telling us there’ll be a meltdown every 2,500 years. So the question is, should we believe history, or should we believe NISA?”
From Q & A following the presentation:
Q. (Eric Johnston)I’m curious about the Diet’s reaction to your comment about the No. 4 pool, and the fact that outside experts are concerned. Have you seen any indication from the Japanese government, that they would be more willing to listen to outside experts like yourself about this problem, especially if Japan moves towards a new regulatory agency?
AG: “There were about 10 parliamentarians, some from the lower and some from upper houses in the meeting, and about 250 people in total. Afterward the parliamentarians contacted me and no, they did not believe NISA and they did not believe Tokyo Electric. The remainder of the crowd actually laughed out loud when Tokyo Electric responded. I have seen no interest on the part of NISA or Tokyo Electric to consider getting other experts involved in their process. I have seen both of them claim that they are getting outside expertise from the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, but if you google IAEA, Article 2 of their United Nations charter is to promote nuclear power.
“I really think there is a need for outside experts who think outside the box. I used to build nuclear fuel racks when I was senior vice-president of a business. So there is expertise beyond the nuclear village that could be called in to assist TEPCO to get this job done safely and quickly. I asked TEPCO if they had considered using lighter casks, and moving less fuel but doing it quickly. And they said on Unit 4 No, they were going to take their time and use the heavier casks, and that this long schedule was best they could do. Tokyo Electric plans to build a building over the top of the fuel building. I was on a national radio show in the United States in May of 2011, and came up with that idea. It took Tokyo Electric a year afterwards to reach the same conclusion. So what I see, as an engineer, is a lack of innovation and a lack of creativity within Tokyo Electric. It’s like watching an elephant trying to run.”
Q. (Brian Williams):Thank you for a very clear, very calm presentation of an absolutely terrifying situation. In your discussion you did not touch on the concerns and issues of long-term storage of long-term storage of nuclear waste. Recently in the US, a federal judge has denied a permit for a nuclear power plant because the issues of long-term storage have not been resolved. Could you comment on that?
AG: “When nuclear plants were created, there was no solution to the nuclear waste problem. So world-wide, no one has begun to store their waste for a quarter of a million years. Not the French, not the Americans. The problem in Japan is worse than in any other country in the world because of the seismicity of the Japanese archipelago. So we started an industry that created waste we have to keep for a quarter of a million years. And now 70 years later, we still haven’t developed a solution to the problem. The joke in America is that the builder has sold us a house, and he says ‘Don’t worry, in a hundred years I’ll come back and install the bathroom [toilet].’ As I said, the nuclear waste disposal problem in Japan is especially severe. There may be a place in America that has seismic characteristics that would be safe for a quarter of a million years, but the more I learn about Japan I cannot imagine a location that would meet that criteria.”
Q. Kimberlye Kowalczyk:You are describing an international crisis. What kind of international pressure is currently on the Japanese government? I heard that a group of experts including yourself and in collaboration with Green Action petitioned Ban Ki Moon to take action, and I’m wondering if you have received a reply? What is the next action that concerned Japanese citizens and experts like yourself can take together?
AG: “There are about three of us, Dr Gordon Edwards from Canada, Robert Alvarez from Washington DC, and me, who began to work with a Japanese ambassador named Akio Matsumura in April 2011. He has enlisted another former Japanese ambassador, Murata, and together they have begun to engage the international community on the issue of what to do with Unit 4. There is also one U.S. senator from Oregon, who is also concerned. The good news is that a few technical people who care passionately about a concern can get the attention of some world leaders, in about a year, to focus attention on a problem. The bad news is that there is so much money on the other side of the argument that it is incredibly difficult for two Japanese ambassadors and a U.S. senator to begin to change the debate. Fairewinds put up a video on August 19th, addressing this issue, and it has been tweeted around the world, but I just think it is constant pressure by many of us, at many different levels, that is the only thing I can offer as a solution. I think the real problem isn’t about Unit 4, it’s that NISA still hasn’t become fully independent from Tokyo Electric, so we really need to keep the pressure on the Diet to get a truly independent NISA.”
Q. Unidentified Japanese woman (trans):As for me, I have never had permanent work, the same as many young people in Japan, and I know that a lot of young people are working to clean up after the accident, for cheap wages. I hear that young people are more affected by radiation. You said that the people who tried to stop the accident at Fukushima are heroes, and I know that we need people to work on the plants, but how should we deal with this problem?
AG: “First of all, I think older people like me should work at the nuclear plants, not younger people, because if I get cancer at 63 years old, by the time I get it I’ll be dead by something else, so it’s OK. When you’re young your cells are dividing more quickly, and because of that if you get exposed to radiation at 20 or 30, it’s much more likely that you’ll develop cancer in your lifetime than for an old guy like me. There is a group of retired Japanese engineers and people who have worked in the plants who have volunteered to go back, for the reason that they know they are old enough that they won’t get cancer. The International Commission on Radiation Protection has said that if someone gets 20 millisieverts the odds are one in 500 that they will get cancer. That includes young and old people. In fact for young people under 20 years old, and for women, especially young women, if you separate them out from that overall group, the chances that they will get cancer are not one in 500, but about one in 50. My advice is I would hope that Tokyo Electric would bring back the old guys to pick up the exposure.
“But on the other issue, that ‘I need work,’ the Daiichi accident presents an opportunity for Japan. There could be lots of jobs created if Japan decides to go to renewables and a distributed generation approach to creating [electric] power. Those jobs aren’t created just in Japan but in fact Japan could be a world leader in exporting this distributed generation concept to the rest of the world. The example is, how does a tree generate power? It generates power with many small leaves, not a few very large leaves. Japan’s system of generating power now is like a tree with a few very large leaves. What I’m proposing for the future is distributed power, which is a tree with many small leaves. I think if Japan uses this opportunity that was created by the Daiichi accident to change the way it generates power, there are jobs for young people not just within Japan but also to export to the rest of the world.”