Fukushima and the institutional invisibility of nuclear disaster via Ecologist

The nuclear industry and its supporters have contrived a variety of narratives to justify and explain away nuclear catastrophes, writes John Downer. None of them actually hold water, yet they serve their purpose – to command political and media heights, and reassure public sentiment on ‘safety’. But if it’s so safe, why the low limits on nuclear liabilities?


Plant design is unrepresentative and/or correctable

Parallel to narratives about Fukushima’s circumstances and operation, outlined above, are narratives that emphasise the plant itself.

These limit the relevance of accident to the wider nuclear industry by arguing that the design of its reactor (a GE Mark-1) was unrepresentative of most other reactors, while simultaneously promising that any reactors that were similar enough to be dangerous could be rendered safe by ‘correcting’ their design.

Accounts in this vein frequently highlight the plant’s age, pointing out that reactor designs have changed over time, presumably becoming safer. A UK civil servant exemplified this narrative, and the strategic decision to foreground it, in an internal email (later printed in the Guardian [2011]), in which he asserted that

“We [The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills] need to … show that events in Japan, whilst looking dramatic, are all part of the safety processes of this 1960’s reactor.”

Stressing the age of the reactor in this way became a mainstay of Fukushima discourse in the disaster’s immediate aftermath. Guardian columnist George Monbiot (2011b), for instance, described Fukushima as “a crappy old plant with inadequate safety features”.

He concluded that its failure should not speak to the integrity of later designs, like that of the neighboring plant, Fukushima ‘Daini’, which did not fail in the tsunami. “Using a plant built 40 years ago to argue against 21st-century power stations”, he wrote, “is like using the Hindenburg disaster to contend that modern air travel is unsafe.”

Other accounts highlighted the reactor’s design but focused on more generalisable failings, such as the “insufficient defense-in-depth provisions for tsunami hazards” (IAEA 2011a: 13), which could not be construed as indigenous only to the Mark-1 reactors or their generation.


The reliability myth

This is all to say, in essence, that it is misleading to assert that an accident of Fukushima’s scale will not re-occur. For there are credible reasons to believe that the reliability required of reactors is not calculable, and there are credible reasons to believe that the actual reliability of reactors is much lower than is officially calculated.

These limitations are clearly evinced by the actual historical failure rate of nuclear reactors. Even the most rudimentary calculations show that civil nuclear accidents have occurred far more frequently than official reliability assessments have predicted.

The exact numbers vary, depending on how one classifies ‘an accident’ (whether Fukushima counts as one meltdown or three, for example), but Ramana (2011) puts the historical rate of serious meltdowns at 1 in every 3,000 reactor years, while Taebi et al. (2012: 203fn) put it at somewhere between 1 in every 1,300 to 3,600 reactor years.

Either way, the implied reliability is orders of magnitude lower than assessments claim.

In a recent declaration to a UK regulator, for instance, Areva, a prominent French nuclear manufacturer, invoked probabilistic calculations to assert that the likelihood of a “core damage incident” in its new ‘EPR’ reactor were of the order of one incident, per reactor, every 1.6 million years (Ramana 2011).

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