Newly found court documents from long ago are raising fresh questions about the safety of nuclear reactors made by General Electric. The documents shed new light on old, unresolved safety problems at GE reactors that still had not been fully addressed by 2011 when nuclear accidents at three GE plants devastated Fukushima, Japan.
GE, the third largest corporation in the world, has designed and built dozens of nuclear reactors around the world since 1958, including six at Fukushima, as well as the Northwest’s only nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station located on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland, Washington — some 150 miles east of Portland and Seattle.
One of the Fukushima reactors explodes in 2011. A similar GE reactor was built near Richland, WA., 150 miles east of Portland and Seattle.
GE built six similar models of its boiling water nuclear reactor — theBWR 1–6 — and three sizes of containment buildings to protect the public from radiation coming off the reactors — the Mark I, II and III.
In 1974, GE revealed that in certain accident and non-accident situations, its smallest containment building, the Mark I, and a slightly larger version, the Mark II, could be subjected to “newly discovered” physical pressures that could structurally damage the steel containment and the equipment inside it. Later, GE acknowledged similar problems with the much larger Mark III.
However, as the old court documents reveal, GE’s top nuclear engineers had been expressing serious misgivings about the stability of the containment buildings long before 1972. In memos to their superiors that go back as early as 1964, the engineers questioned whether the reactors could remain stable during an accident scenario nearly identical to the one that unfolded a half-century later at Fukushima. However, they feared that a massive pipe break, rather than an epic earthquake and tsunami, would be the event that triggered the disaster.
The documents also remind us that in the 1990s, GE settled a series of claims made by utilities that had bought GE’s nuclear equipment. The utilities said the containment buildings at 10 plants were defective (see the list at the bottom of this page), equal to one-fourth of all GE nuclear power systems that were ever operated in the United States.
At least four of the disputes led to lawsuits. The lawsuits accused GE of knowingly selling defective reactors as well as committing various other acts such as breach of contract, racketeering and fraud as part of a marketing scheme to foist the reactors upon unsuspecting utilities and the public without their knowledge of the defects or their consent.
In their complaints, the utilities claimed each type of GE containment building — the Mark I, II and III — was defective.
The Richland nuclear power plant, its BWR-5 reactor and its Mark IIcontainment structure were built from 1973–1983. The owner was then known as the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS), a consortium of 27 publicly-owned utilities in Washington state. The plant is situated on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the most radioactively contaminated site in the country. Hanford, a former nuclear weapons factory, is owned by the US Department of Energy, which leased a portion of the site to WPPSS for operating the commercial nuclear power plant.
In 1999, the nuclear power plant was renamed the “Columbia Generating Station.” The new name, which replaced “Washington Nuclear Plant 2,” obscures the fact that nuclear fuel is what is used there to make electricity.
The name “Washington Public Power Supply System” is gone too. The utility consortium, hoping to rebrand itself in the wake of the financial disaster it created in the 1970s and 1980s, is now called “Energy Northwest.” The old WPPSS (usually pronounced “whoops” for obvious reasons) failed spectacularly while trying to build five nuclear plants at the same time in the 1980s. All but one were cancelled. Construction costs exploded and WPPSSdefaulted on $2.25 billion worth of construction bonds in what at the time was the largest municipal bond collapse in US history.
Meanwhile, WPPSS and General Electric couldn’t agree on who was liable for paying to fix the plant’s defects. In 1985 WPPSS sued GE for $1.2 billion.WPPSS claimed that in 1971, when it bought the reactor from GE for $110 million, GE failed to disclose its knowledge about the reactor’s defects. A decade later, WPPSS had to spend another $297 million to rebuild it, delaying the initial start-up by 18 months.
In 1990, during trial in US District Court, Judge Alan A. McDonald said he heard “unrebutted evidence” that GE had falsely claimed that its nuclear plant hardware was “proven and tested” before it was placed on the market.
The proceedings were declared a mistrial after a jury wasn’t able to reach a unanimous verdict. Judge McDonald ruled that WPPSS could base its complaint against GE on negligent misrepresentation rather than on fraud and breach of contract. A second trial was about to start in 1992 when a settlement was reached.
As the Seattle Times reported at the time, GE settled the case for $134.9 million worth of goods and services, but paid no cash. However, GE agreed to increase the power output of the WPPSS reactor by 50 megawatts, an increase that could generate about $16.5 million worth of electricity in a year.
Documents from the case show that GE intended to conduct full-scale tests of the plants only after utilities began operating them in the backyards of communities like Richland, and the neighboring Kennewick and Pasco.
“The Court can only view that as a fairly sophisticated form of Russian roulette,” McDonald wrote.
Russian Roulette is a potentially lethal game of chance in which a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against his head, and pulls the trigger.
In 2011, a quarter-century after Judge McDonald issued his warning about General Electric’s deadly nuclear power game, and a half-century after GE’s engineers expressed their own concerns, the Russian Roulette bullet finally went off. Three GE reactors exploded at Fukushima, devastating the northeastern part of Honshu, the largest island in Japan and spreading contamination as far south as Tokyo, a distance of nearly 150 miles, or about the same distance from Hanford to Portland or Seattle.
The radiation was released in amounts that are known to cause several deadly types of cancer, which can take up to twenty years to develop, and can harm the health of future generations by causing genetic mutations.
Dr. Helen Caldicott, the Australian medical doctor and anti-nuclear activist, estimates that 2.5 to 3.5 million people could eventually die from cancer caused by the Fukushima radiation release.
The Fukushima accident also contaminated the the North Pacific Ocean with large amounts of radioactive fallout that will persist for generations.
The people living near nuclear accidents or releases are often called “downwinders” because the air they breathe has often been contaminated by pollution from a source located upwind. Residents of the Tri-Cities in South Central Washington know well what it is like to be a downwinder. Since World War II, they have lived downwind from the highly polluted Hanford Nuclear Reservation and its now-closed nuclear reactors and bomb factories. They have suffered a series of health problems as a result.
A Fukushima-like explosion at the commercial nuclear plant would make previous contamination seem like child’s play: causing serious health effects, forcing massive evacuations of cities and towns, contaminating the Columbia River and its salmon runs, and rendering vast stretches of prime agricultural land uninhabitable for centuries.
Large portions of the United States are potentially at risk as well. Most ofGE’s nuclear reactors are located near population centers east of the Mississippi River. More than 58 million people live within 50 miles of a GEnuclear reactor.
Why the GE plant failed at Fukushima and the NRC’s response
The nuclear power plants discussed here are known as boiling water reactors. There are 35 boiling water reactors currently operating in the United States and five that are defunct. Each was made by General Electric. Many of the other 68 plants in the US are known as pressurized water reactors and have had serious problems themselves. Westinghouse, a major manufacturer of these competing designs, has also had to fend off a series of lawsuits filed by its customers.
A schematic of the typical General Electric Mark I Boiling Water Reactor., which is slightly smaller than the Mark IImodel. The Mark III is larger yet.
Nuclear fission occurs within a long, skinny structure made of reinforced steel, with a concrete shell, in the shape of an upside-down incandescent light bulb. Known as a “containment vessel,” this structure contains a single nuclear reactor. Directly adjoining the containment vessel at Columbia Generating Station are 327 tons of still-highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods that sit in a pool of water above the reactor – six stories above ground and much less heavily protected than the reactor itself. As Dr. Caldicott points out, this irradiated fuel is about 1,000 times more radioactive than fresh fuel.
Hot, highly pressurized radioactive gas and steam fill up the empty spaces in the containment vessel. The vessel’s job is to contain its contents of gas, steam and radioactive particles so they don’t escape to the outside environment.
In the boiling water reactor models produced by GE, pumps deliver water to the reactor to cool it down as well as to produce steam that turns the turbines that generate the power.
Equipment in the plant is designed to condense the hot steam back into water. Because the Fukushima plants lost power after the earthquake and tsunami, they were unable to condense the steam. They could neither pump water needed to cool the reactors, nor control the pressure of the gas and steam filling the containment.
The most volatile of the gases in a nuclear containment structure is hydrogen, which is created when the zirconium cladding, or the outer covering of the nuclear fuel rods, becomes overheated while in contact with water or steam. At Fukushima, hydrogen and other gases built up at extreme pressures and began escaping through small gaps in the containment structures. The hydrogen found a spark three times, literally blowing the top off of three of the reactor buildings, further breaching containment, and spreading dangerous radioactive particles throughout northeastern Japan, the region, and around the northern hemisphere.
On March 19, 2013, in response to the Fukushima accident, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered utilities to install vents that would release the pressure of hydrogen and other gases during a nuclear accident. Instead of requiring more robust vents and filters to prevent radioactive particles from escaping in a worst-case accident, as recommended by the NRC staff, utilities will be allowed to consider alternatives that get enough cooling water the reactor to avoid such a worst-case accident.
The Commission overruled the staff recommendation and decided, in a 4–1 vote, not to require the filters because of opposition from the nuclear power industry, which claimed they would be too expensive.
The WPPSS reactor in Hanford as well as many other plants now must still spend tens of millions of dollars to comply with the new, somewhat weakened, NRC order.
Only Allison MacFarlane, chair of the commission, voted in favor of the filtered vents. “My decision reflects, in part, my experiences during a recent trip to the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan,” she said. She said she traveled through deserted villages past homes and businesses that have overgrown with weeds since the accident.
She said it all underscored “the impact of the accident from a nuclear plant.”
David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer with the watchdog group Union of Concerned Scientists, said that, if installed, “the filters would remove 99 percent of the contamination.”
Moreover, Charles K. Johnson, director of the Joint Task Force on Nuclear Power for Oregon and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility, stated, “this half-measure upgrade is unlikely to prevent a hydrogen explosion and a massive release of radiation in a worst-case scenario.”
As Paul Gunter of nuclear power opponent Beyond Nuclear put it, “Venting an accident without a filter” is like “fire-hosing downwind communities with massive amounts of radiation.”
It appears the Columbia Generating Station will still pose a safety risk to the public and the region even after the installation of vents is complete in 2016, as scheduled.
Meanwhile, another serious, unresolved problem with GE plants has emerged: the discovery of gas bubbles trapped in the pipes of the emergency core cooling system. These bubbles can disable or damage the pumps when they are trying to cool the superheated reactor during an accident. If the pumps ingest enough air, “the pumps may become inoperable,” according to a study of the issue by scientists at Purdue University.
Since the pumps rely on the water they are pumping to provide lubrication and cooling, a pump that is trying to pump air can overheat — causing its casing to thermally expand, exceeding tolerances.
“Since these components typically have tight tolerances, a significant amount of thermal expansion will cause these tolerances to be exceeded,” said an NRC engineer, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation by his employer.
Most significantly, the NRC has not found a solution to the gas bubble problem.
Nevertheless, it allows the GE plants keep on running. The results could be catastrophic.
GE’s 12-year cover-up
At the time WPPSS bought its reactor, GE‘s engineers acknowledged in memos that they didn’t fully understand certain “phenomena” that occurred during the steam condensation process. As one GE engineer wrote in 1964, the steam condensation process was “the least understood” aspect of GEreactors.
The GE engineers had other worries as well, including mysterious vibrations which they had observed. In 1968, the manager of GE’s Systems Conformance Engineering Unit said the vibrations could not be explained without “very expensive large-scale tests.”
In 1970, the manager of GE’s Advance Systems & Analysis Design Unit noted that GE was trying to “dump” the vibration problem onto unsuspecting customers like WPPSS. He predicted, however, that WPPSS and other utilities would fail to find a solution and that GE would eventually be called upon to conduct “a rescue operation.”
Also in 1970, engineers wrote about a different, potentially serious, phenomenon: the “severe jumping and banging” they had observed when pressurized steam was injected into a massive water cooler known as the torus. The torus, located beneath the reactor, is part of the plant’s system to condense water and reduce pressure. Engineers saw the torus literally leap off its foundation.
Were any of these concerns communicated to WPPSS prior to the sale? Apparently not. Federal District Court Judge McDonald wrote that WPPSShad “submitted uncontroverted evidence that nobody from GE ever told the Supply System about any concern GE had about the adequacy of the containment.”
GE engineers continued to voice concerns about its plants after the company sold the reactor to WPPSS. A 1975 memo from a GE engineer named Henry E. Stone noted that a variety of failures, technical problems and serious structural defects at GE reactors still had not been resolved. The memo was labeled “strictly private” and “GE confidential: Subject to protective order, Zimmer litigation.”
In response to Stone’s memo, A.J. Bray, general manager of GE’s nuclear reactor division, was taken aback by what he described as the memo’s “negative tone.”
“If any of our customers ever get a copy of this, we are in real trouble,” Bray wrote. “All of the comments may be true, but why does GE have to put it into print to ruin a business?”
The “Zimmer litigation” was a reference to a lawsuit filed by Cincinnati Gas & Electric over defects at its Zimmer Nuclear Plant, located on the Ohio River east of Cincinnati. GE never intended for the Bray memo to be released, but it was filed along with several other confidential documents in open court by lawyers for the plaintiffs, a breach of a protective order, which GEhad expected would ensure confidentiality.
But an alert reporter for the local newspaper took notice, and soon stories began appearing about an alleged “12-year cover-up” of a “secret report” which contained “undisclosed safety problems,” according to a two-volume, 1200-page document produced in 1987 by GE about the history of its containment structure problems.
The GE history said the “misleading” newspaper articles “raised concerns in communities where GE BWRs (boiling water reactors) are in operation.” The confidential documents also proved troublesome when utilities and public officials in other states began demanding copies.
GE’s 1987 allegedly exhaustive history was full of holes. For example, the company neglected to give credit to the whistleblowers who raised questions about the plants’ safety in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to the repairs in the 1980s.
Zimmer, a Mark II GE plant near Cincinnati, never produced a single watt of nuclear power. Before the plant opened in 1983, it was converted to coal. The Zimmer plant, the world’s only nuclear power plant converted to a coal-burning facility, is now the largest single-unit coal-powered facility in the US.
Putting Profits First
The old court documents had been long forgotten when Daniel Pope, a professor at the University of Oregon, dug them up in a Lexis-Nexis search while doing research for his 2008 book, “Nuclear Implosions: The Rise and Fall of the Washington Public Power Supply System.”
When the New York Times wrote about the defective GE reactors in 2011during the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accidents, it made no mention of the old court documents. The writer recalled that some utility companies had thought about suing GE during the 1980s, but he failed to mention that some utilities did, in fact, file lawsuits — including two in New York State — Long Island Light and Niagara Mohawk Power. The New York Times even wrote a brief story about one of the lawsuits when it was filed in 1988. More information about the LILCO case can be found here.
However, the 2011 Times article did describe several other interesting documents, including a few from NRC officials critical of GE.
The Times reported that in 1972, Stephen H. Hanauer, then a safety official with the Atomic Energy Commission, recommended that the Mark 1 system be discontinued because it presented “unacceptable safety risks.” The Times added that, “Among the concerns cited was the smaller containment design, which was more susceptible to explosion and rupture from a buildup in hydrogen — a situation that may have unfolded at the Fukushima Daiichi plant.”
Also in 1972, Joseph Hendrie, who in 1977 became chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the successor agency to the Atomic Energy Commission, said the idea of a ban on this type of reactor “was attractive,” the Times reported.
But Hendrie added that a ban on GE’s technology particularly at this time, “could well be the end of nuclear power.’
One can assume that an industry that put profits first, ahead of safety and full disclosure, would have strongly resisted any effort to shut it down.
As GE general manager A.B. Bray says, the disclosure of damning facts can “ruin a business.” GE had invested billions of dollars in nuclear technology and had much to lose. GE sold 42 reactors in just two years in the early 1970s, which is more than the total number of boiling water reactors now in operation in the United States.
After hearing the case for seven years, Judge McDonald, a Ronald Reagan appointee who died in 2007, concluded that GE did not disclose its doubts about reactors to WPPSS because it “was concerned about its market position, profits and potential liability.”
Reginald Jones, CEO of GE, assured a group of security analysts in 1975 that he saw nuclear power as the future of energy and that GE would continue to invest in it. “And as long as we can make these investments, and contain our risks, then we’re going to continue with this strategy.”
Neither Energy Northwest nor General Electric responded to a request for comment on this story. In the past, each has said that GE nuclear plants are safe.
Others, such as Paul Gunter of Beyond Nuclear, disagree. “The Mark I and Mark II boiling water reactors are aging and deteriorating with fundamentally flawed containment systems,” he said.” They are inherently dangerous. These reactors should be immediately closed.”
This list shows the names of nuclear power plants and their owners that pressed claims against General Electric for defects in their reactors. The 10 plants on this list represent a quarter of all GE boiling water reactors ever sold in the United States. Source: Various media reports.