You are standing with the scientists while they test the new technology; a nuclear power plant. The plant’s turbines are whirring like 20 jet plane engines and its sizzling radioactive core is turning thousands of gallons of water into steam.
Then the plant operators tested the shut-down systems. They diverted the super-heated steam into the spent water chamber. But that massive tank, called a torus, starts shaking and vibrating. As everyone watches, appalled, the huge, multi-ton water containment tank, which literally hugs the nuclear reactor vessel, trembles and jumps off the floor.
And that was just one of the initial start-up problems with that is today the “workhorse” of the nuclear power industry, the General Electric Mark 1 reactor. Scores of Mark I reactors are generating electricity today, around the world, including 35 in the United States. The Mark I reactors are what blew up at Fukushima.
Long-suppressed court documents now reveal that GE originally put the Mark I into service without rigorously testing its ability to survive operational problems and disasters. A recent investigative report by Cascadia Times documented that GE knew all along they’d designed faulty reactors. GE hoped they could fix them later. Instead of coming up with a better design, GE suppressed information, ignored complaints from engineers and wrote “limited liability” contracts with utilities that unwittingly bought these reactors.
The full article based on these documents can be found at:
The Mark 1’s reactors were also originally built with weak containment buildings, which enclosed the nuclear reactor. Containment buildings are supposed to “contain” the effects of radioactive accidents within the nuclear reactor.
GE eventually ordered retrofits of the Mark I and other Mark series reactors, to strengthen the containment buildings. But some experts say failure of the containment buildings of the Mark I reactors at Fukushima show that retrofit was not adequate. TEPCO, which owns the Fukushima reactors, insists the retrofit was installed to GE’s specifications.
But one federal judge had criticized the operations of the Mark I, without adequate pre-service testing, as a “… sophisticated form of Russian Roulette.” Some say the Fukushima victims lost during their unknowing turn of Russian Roulette.
These revelations about the troubled history of the Mark I and other Mark series reactors (including the Mark II and III) raises questions about the efforts underway to retrofit those nuclear power plants
Nuclear power plants generate large amounts of carbon-free energy, which helps the human race buy some time in the battle against climate change. Many persons, including this writer, reluctantly support nuclear power as an important source of carbon-free energy.
Every operating nuclear reactor that displaces a coal-fired power plant has reduced the world’s carbon emissions to date by about 4 million tons per year. If all 65 nuclear power plants in the US was shut down and replaced with gas-fired power plants, that alone would raise the US carbon emissions by about 4% a year. The German and Japanese shut downs of their nuclear energy industry, and its partial replacement with coal and natural gas fueled plants, have triggered increased carbon emissions in both countries.
For these and other reasons, many nuclear plant owners now seek to maintain and retrofit their plants to operate past their original life times. But these revelations raise the question of whether the Mark series reactors can ever be safely retrofitted, given its rush into service. At least ten US utilities have sued GE over the Mark I’s defects, but those cases were typically terminated with settlements sealed against public view.
The federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission recently took its own swing at nuclear retrofits in the aftermath of Fukushima, by ordering nuclear plants to install vents to allow discharges, during emergencies, of pressurized gasses, which would avoid dangerous gas build-ups within the containment buildings.
However, NRC staff has recommended that filters be installed on the vents, to reduce emissions of radioactive materials. The NRC, by a 4-1 vote, rejected its staff’s option, because the nuclear industry claimed the filters were expensive. The lone NRC Commissioner who had toured Fukushima voted in favor of filters on the vents.