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Fukushima nuclear crisis: A disaster deemed ‘inconceivable’

Dan Farber, professor of law | February 27, 2012

During the Fukushima nuclear crisis, government officials and industry representatives said that the tsunami that struck the reactors was “beyond our imagination,” thus excusing the failure to consider such a risk in the planning process. As it turns out, there had been warnings about this possibility, but the risks were ignored.

The reactor was situated on a small cliff, which was thought to provide sufficient protection from modest tsunamis. But there is a historical record of a large tsunami in July 869, and geological evidence indicating a thousand-year return cycle. Until 2006, the government did not even discuss tsunamis in its safety guidelines and state that the “robust sealed containment structure around the reactor itself would prevent any damage to the nuclear part of the reactor would prevent any damage to the nuclear part from a tsunami . . . No radiological hazard would be likely.”

This was not the first Japanese nuclear accident “beyond our imagination.” On July 16, 2007 an earthquake damaged the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant. The designers used the historical record and added a margin of safety – but still reached only 40% of the actual quake strength. Apparently, what they thought were three small faults were actually part of one large fault. The accident involved also unforeseen. One company official said, “It was beyond our imagination that a space could be made in the hole on the outer wall for the electric cables.”

We have seen similar issues in the United States. After 9/11, officials claimed that it was impossible to foresee the use of an airliner against a commercial building by terrorists — yet it turned out that such efforts had been foreseen and indeed that terrorists had attempted to use a smaller plane as a weapon. Before the BP Oil Spill, officials and industry actors also argued that the risk of a major blowout was too small to be a concern with respect to deep water drilling.

In each of these cases, a risk was brushed aside but later materialized with disastrous results.  One lesson is that agencies need to learn to question their own assumption, as difficult as that may be.  The other is that we should never believe claims that all risks have been calculated and that a serious accident is inconceivable.

Cross-posted from the environmental law and policy blog Legal Planet.

Comments to “Fukushima nuclear crisis: A disaster deemed ‘inconceivable’

  1. Stop it Japan.Save our world.The whole world is deceived by Japan.

    The Japanese army made a false video.

    The hole which does not exist is photographed.

    There was no hole in the center of UNIT1-4 before explosion.

    Exclude UNIT2 after UNIT1 explosion.

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  2. What is the point of continuing to point out that large industrial facilities are vulnerable to the effects of a tsunami that wipes out all internal sources of electricity and much of the surrounding infrastructure that would have helped to prevent further damage to the plant.

    The important thing that Fukushima teaches those who bother to study very hard is that nuclear disasters occur very slowly as the engineered barriers fail gracefully. The slow pace of destruction allowed everyone to be moved to a safe distance while the workers stabilized the situation.

    Bottom line – four damaged nuclear reactors. Not one single person injured by the released radiation. No damage to the surrounding infrastructure other than that caused by the irrational fear of radiation that prevents the human caretakers from returning and rebuilding their homes, schools and businesses.

    Now, please be fair and do some investigation on what really happened at the Cosmo Oil Company refinery in Chiba, where an inferno raged for 10 days after the earthquake.

  3. Do you have any experience conducting risk assessments? Do you know anything about earthquakes, tsunamis, engineering, or hazard analysis? If not, why are you blogging on this subject?

  4. The more Japan will plan to deal with nuclear power the more it will drag itself to the loads of hazards. Japanese government needs to realize that it will always be having massive natural disasters like frequent earthquakes, tsunamis etc. and therefore it should not think of something like nuclear power which is never environment friendly.

    I just found this new study, produced independent organization Datapoke, concerning the estimated concentrations of radionuclides at upper altitudes. The report indicates concentrations orders of magnitude higher than those physically recorded at near surface level.

    The report includes dispersion images but I can’t figure out how to post them here. Can anyone post the dispersion images?

  5. the tsunami causing the meltdown narrative is sophisticated spin. the earthquake shattered the cooling system making what powered it a moot point. reactors were melting down before the wave reached shore.

  6. Le seisme du 11 Mars n’a pas endommagé les centrales mais s’est contenté de couper les circuits d’approvisionnement en eau, ainsi, plusieurs heures après, alors que la ville emportée tout autour redevenait ‘présentable’ s’est produit l’explosion de réacteurs secs. Donc, ce ne sont pas les bâtis des centrales qui doivent être fortifiés mais revoir les structures qui supportent les tuyaux (qui vont de l’océan à la centrales pour y désaliniser l’eau nécessaire au bon fonctionnement des réacteurs). D’après photos, les supports des tuyauteries diverses ne semblent pas être été montés sur vérins.
    Par contre, pour le ’11-9′, les hologrammes d’avions n’ont jamais détruits les tours WTC.

    [Per Google Translate]: The earthquake of March 11 did not damage plants but was content to cut water supply circuits, and, after several hours, when the city was again carried around ‘presentable’ occurred the dry reactor explosion. So this is not the built power plants that must be fortified but review the structures that support pipes (ranging from the ocean to be central to desalinate the water required for proper operation of the reactors). Based on photos, various piping materials do not appear to have been mounted on jacks. By cons, for the ’11-9 ‘, holograms of planes have never destroyed the WTC towers.

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