Fission Stories #130: Fukushima’s Dividends or Mea Culpas

February 19, 2013 | 6:00 am
Dave Lochbaum
Former Contributor

On March 11, 2011, an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale off the coast of Japan spawned a large tsunami wave that overtopped the protective seawall at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The flood waters disabled emergency equipment. The three reactors operating at the time of the earthquake experienced extensive damage due to overheating.

Tsunami waters flooding the Fukushima Daiichi site. The gray rectangular structure with the horizontal band in the left background is one of the turbine buildings. In the upper right, the Pacific Ocean is shown overtopping the protective seawall. The cylindrical tubes are part of the ventilation system. Just below the center of the picture is a white SUV stood on its nose by the flood water. (Source: TEPCO)

In March 2012, the NRC ordered owners of operating nuclear reactors to walk down their facilities for earthquake and flooding vulnerabilities. Those efforts have already reaped dividends. For example:

Our Takeaway

For decades, these design deficiencies left these reactors more vulnerable to floods than necessary. The Fukushima disaster prompted reactions in the United States that found and fix these longstanding impairments. That’s good.

But what if these reactors had experienced the flood prior to March 2011 that it was supposed to be protected against, but was not? Perhaps workers in Japan would have walked down their plants for lessons from the Vermont Yankee, Millstone, or second Three Mile Island disaster.

Why weren’t these design problems found in the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, or 1970s?

Lots of people spent lots of time allegedly looking for them.

For example, the NRC has inspection procedure 71111.06 titled “Flood Protection Measures” that requires two plant areas to be examined each year. The procedure explicitly guides NRC inspectors to give priority to “Sealing of equipment below the floodline, such as electrical conduits” in “areas that can be affected by internal flooding, including water intake facilities.”

And NRC inspection procedure 71111.01 titled “Adverse Weather Protection” has a section specifically chartered to “Evaluate Readiness to Cope with External Flooding” directing NRC inspectors to “select plant areas containment risk significant structures, systems, and components (SSCs) which are below flood levels or otherwise susceptible to flooding.”

Again, why didn’t these or other NRC inspections find at least some of these design problems in the 2000s, 1990s, 1980s, or 1970s? It’s not a case of one NRC inspector having a bad week – it’s a case of a regulatory agency having four bad decades.

The NRC should review its inspection efforts in light of all these reports and make changes necessary to improve their effectiveness.

And the NRC could take a complementary approach.

The NRC issues operating licenses to plant owners allowing them to operate their facilities within terms and conditions established by those licenses. The plant owners, not the NRC, have primary responsibility under the law to abide by those terms and conditions. Thus, plant workers rather than NRC inspectors are expected under the law to find and fix design deficiencies.

The mea culpas listed above clearly represent failures by plant owners to fulfill their obligations under the law. The NRC has the authority to fine owners for violating federal safety regulations. The NRC should take its federal safety regulations seriously by sanctioning owners who have violated them for decades.

When owners scoff at federal safety regulations, the American public expects the NRC to do more than join in the scoff chorus.


“Fission Stories” is a weekly feature by Dave Lochbaum. For more information on nuclear power safety, see the nuclear safety section of UCS’s website and our interactive map, the Nuclear Power Information Tracker.