In 2004, Leuren Moret warned in the Japan Times of the exact type of nuclear catastrophe that Japan is now experiencing:

Of all the places in all the world where no one in their right mind would build scores of nuclear power plants, Japan would be pretty near the top of the list.

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Japan sits on top of four tectonic plates, at the edge of the subduction zone, and is in one of the most tectonically active regions of the world.

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Nonetheless, like many countries around the world — where General Electric and Westinghouse designs are used in 85 percent of all commercial reactors — Japan has turned to nuclear power as a major energy source

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Many of those reactors have been negligently sited on active faults, particularly in the subduction zone along the Pacific coast, where major earthquakes of magnitude 7-8 or more on the Richter scale occur frequently. The periodicity of major earthquakes in Japan is less than 10 years. There is almost no geologic setting in the world more dangerous for nuclear power than Japan — the third-ranked country in the world for nuclear reactors.

“I think the situation right now is very scary,” says Katsuhiko Ishibashi, a seismologist and professor at Kobe University. “It’s like a kamikaze terrorist wrapped in bombs just waiting to explode.”

***

On July 7 last year, the same day of my visit to Hamaoka, Ishibashi warned of the danger of an earthquake-induced nuclear disaster, not only to Japan but globally, at an International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics conference held in Sapporo. He said: “The seismic designs of nuclear facilities are based on standards that are too old from the viewpoint of modern seismology and are insufficient. The authorities must admit the possibility that an earthquake-nuclear disaster could happen and weigh the risks objectively.”

***

I realized that Japan has no real nuclear-disaster plan in the event that an earthquake damaged a reactor’s water-cooling system and triggered a reactor meltdown.

Additionally, but not even mentioned by ERC officials, there is an extreme danger of an earthquake causing a loss of water coolant in the pools where spent fuel rods are kept. As reported last year in the journal Science and Global Security, based on a 2001 study by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, if the heat-removing function of those pools is seriously compromised — by, for example, the water in them draining out — and the fuel rods heat up enough to combust, the radiation inside them will then be released into the atmosphere. This may create a nuclear disaster even greater than Chernobyl.

***

It is not a question of whether or not a nuclear disaster will occur in Japan; it is a question of when it will occur.

As the US Geological Survey notes, Japan has had many earthquakes, including:

Yet:

Japanese engineer Masashi Goto, who helped design the containment vessel for Fukushima’s reactor core, says the design was not enough to withstand earthquakes or tsunamis.

Indeed, Reuters points out today:

Over the past two weeks, Japanese government officials and Tokyo Electric Power executives have repeatedly described the deadly combination of the most powerful quake in Japan’s history and the massive tsunami that followed as “soteigai,” or beyond expectations.

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But a review of company and regulatory records shows that Japan and its largest utility repeatedly downplayed dangers and ignored warnings — including a 2007 tsunami study from Tokyo Electric Power Co’s senior safety engineer.

“We still have the possibilities that the tsunami height exceeds the determined design height due to the uncertainties regarding the tsunami phenomenon,” Tokyo Electric researchers said in a report reviewed by Reuters.

***

The research paper concluded that there was a roughly 10 percent chance that a tsunami could test or overrun the defenses of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant within a 50-year span based on the most conservative assumptions.

But Tokyo Electric did nothing to change its safety planning based on that study, which was presented at a nuclear engineering conference in Miami in July 2007.

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Tokyo Electric’s Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, some 150 miles northeast of Tokyo, was a particular concern.

The 40-year-old nuclear complex was built near a quake zone in the Pacific that had produced earthquakes of magnitude 8 or higher four times in the past 400 years — in 1896, 1793, 1677 and then in 1611, Tokyo Electric researchers had come to understand.

Based on that history, Sakai, a senior safety manager at Tokyo Electric, and his research team applied new science to a simple question: What was the chance that an earthquake-generated wave would hit Fukushima? More pressing, what were the odds that it would be larger than the roughly 6-meter (20 feet) wall of water the plant had been designed to handle?

The tsunami that crashed through the Fukushima plant on March 11 was 14 meters high.

Sakai’s team determined the Fukushima plant was dead certain to be hit by a tsunami of one or two meters in a 50-year period. They put the risk of a wave of 6 meters or more at around 10 percent over the same time span.

In other words, Tokyo Electric scientists realized as early as 2007 that it was quite possible a giant wave would overwhelm the sea walls and other defenses at Fukushima by surpassing engineering assumptions behind the plant’s design that date back to the 1960s.

***

Despite the projection by its own safety engineers that the older assumptions might be mistaken, Tokyo Electric was not breaking any Japanese nuclear safety regulation by its failure to use its new research to fortify Fukushima Dai-ichi, which was built on the rural Pacific coast to give it quick access to sea water and keep it away from population centers.

“There are no legal requirements to re-evaluate site related (safety) features periodically,” the Japanese government said in a response to questions from the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, in 2008.

Not Just Japan

As MSNBC notes, there are 23 virtually-identical reactors in the U.S. to the leaking Fukushima reactors.

As McClatchy notes, American reactors hold much more spent fuel than the Japanese reactors (the amount of radioactive fuel at Fukushima – in turn – dwarfs Chernobyl):

U.S. nuclear plants use the same sort of pools to cool spent nuclear-fuel rods as the ones now in danger of spewing radiation at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, only the U.S. pools hold much more nuclear material.

***

The Japanese plant’s pools are far from capacity, but still contain an enormous amount of radioactivity, Lyman said. A typical U.S. nuclear plant would have about 10 times as much fuel in its pools, he said.

And yet the nuclear industry and American government are poo-poohing the danger. As McClatchy notes:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission reaffirmed its position that the U.S. pools are operated safely.

The Nation notes:

Aileen Mioko Smith, director of Green Action Kyoto, met Fukushima plant and government officials in August 2010. “At the plant they seemed to dismiss our concerns about spent fuel pools,” said Mioko Smith. “At the prefecture, they were very worried but had no plan for how to deal with it.”Remarkably, that is the norm—both in Japan and in the United States. Spent fuel pools at Fukushima are not equipped with backup water-circulation systems or backup generators for the water-circulation system they do have.

The exact same design flaw is in place at Vermont Yankee, a nuclear plant of the same GE design as the Fukushima reactors. At Fukushima each reactor has between 60 and 83 tons of spent fuel rods stored next to them. Vermont Yankee has a staggering 690 tons of spent fuel rods on site.

Nuclear safety activists in the United States have long known of these problems and have sought repeatedly to have them addressed. At least get backup generators for the pools, they implored. But at every turn the industry has pushed back, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has consistently ruled in favor of plant owners over local communities.

After 9/11 the issue of spent fuel rods again had momentary traction. Numerous citizen groups petitioned and pressured the NRC for enhanced protections of the pools. But the NRC deemed “the possibility of a terrorist attack…speculative and simply too far removed from the natural or expected consequences of agency action.” So nothing was done—not even the provision of backup water-circulation systems or emergency power-generation systems.

Similarly, Pro Publica points out:

Opponents of nuclear power have warned for years that if these pools drain, either by accident or terrorist attack, it could lead to a fire and a catastrophic release of radiation.

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The nuclear industry says fears about the storage pools at U.S. plants are overblown because the pools are protected and, even if fuel is exposed to the air, the chance of a fire is incredibly small.

***

“People should be very concerned because the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] has acknowledged that spent fuel pools that are not located inside the containment have the potential to cause catastrophic accidents,” said Diane Curran, a lawyer who has represented environmental groups and governments in challenges to fuel storage plans.“These are not high-probability accidents,” Curran said, “but we have seen how low-probability accidents can happen.”

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Congress asked the National Academies to study the vulnerability of spent fuel to a terrorist attack.

The resulting 2005 report, “Safety and Security of Commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage ,” concluded that “an attack which partially or completely drains a plant’s spent fuel pool might be capable of starting a high-temperature fire that could release large quantities of radioactive material into the environment.”

The report found that the vulnerability of the spent fuel to fire depends on how old it is and how it is stored. As the fuel ages, it cools, so it becomes less susceptible to a fire.

“The industry standard is that fuel that is older than five years can be dry-stored,” said Kevin Crowley, director of the nuclear and radiation board for the National Research Council, part of National Academies.

The report recommended that the nuclear industry take steps to decrease the vulnerability of the storage pools to fire. Some of those steps are classified, Crowley said. But he said others, like making sure there were fire hoses or spray systems above the pools, were pretty simple.

***The nuclear industry disagreed with the national academy about the vulnerability of the spent fuel to a fire.

So a Fukushima-type disaster was inevitable … and will be inevitable in the U.S. as well, unless steps are taken to make the plants safer.

Whistleblowers Ignored

In addition, years before Fukushima engineer Mitsuhiko Tanaka blew the whistle on the fact that Tepco covered up a defective containment vessel, the above-quoted Japan Times article blew the whistle:

Yoichi Kikuchi, a Japanese nuclear engineer who also became a whistle-blower, has told me personally of many safety problems at Japan’s nuclear power plants, such as cracks in pipes in the cooling system from vibrations in the reactor. He said the electric companies are “gambling in a dangerous game to increase profits and decrease government oversight.”

[Kei Sugaoka, a Japanese-American senior field engineer who worked for General Electric in the United States, who previously blew the whistle on Tepco's failure to inform the government of defects at the reactors] agreed, saying, “The scariest thing, on top of all the other problems, is that all nuclear power plants are aging, causing a deterioration of piping and joints which are always exposed to strong radiation and heat.”

Kikuchi and Sugaoka were ignored. Just like American whistle-blowers are being ignored.

Category: Energy, Think Tank

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6 Responses to “Japanese Seismologist in 2004 on Risk of Nuclear Accident: “It’s Like a Kamikaze Terrorist Wrapped in Bombs Just Waiting to Explode””

  1. wunsacon says:

    Nuclear power can be harnessed safely, whereas limited liability companies will never be tamed.

  2. RadioFlyer says:

    Two words: Yucca Mountain

  3. In the Japanese newspaper Asahi, a report that a 64-year-old cabbage farmer from Fukushima prefecture killed himself one day after the government imposed restrictions on the sale of produce from the region

    http://www.asahi.com/national/update/0328/TKY201103280468.html

    (Google translate to English)

  4. [...] Barry Ritholtz finds a Japan Times article from 2004, where a seismologist warned of this exact catastrophe. Read it, it’s worth it and the TL;DR below doesn’t do it justice. [...]

  5. [...] Japanese Seismologist in 2004 on Risk of Nuclear Accident: “It’s Like a Kamikaze Terrori… « Do you think Indian nuclear plants can survive Japan-type earthquake? [...]