Inconceivable!

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.

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Reader Comments

8 Replies to “Inconceivable!”

    1. Nor what government agencies and industry think it means, for that matter!

      I thought about including a video clip from the Princess Bride but thought it might confuse people. 🙂

    1. Nor what government agencies and industry think it means, for that matter!

      I thought about including a video clip from the Princess Bride but thought it might confuse people. 🙂

  1. I think it’s important to put Fukushima in context- there were many, many structures in Japan that didn’t hold up against the earthquake and tsunami, with disastrous environmental consequences. What fraction of the environmental damage due to the earthquake’s impact on human infrastructure was associated with Fukushima? For example- how did the environmental damage due to Fukushima compare to the damage from the oil refinery fire in Ichibara? I’m not asking these questions rhetorically- I’ve just spent a few minutes looking for an overall assessment of the environmental impact of the quake on the web, and can’t find much. I wonder if all the focus on the radioactive pollution has been a case of the drunk looking for keys under the lamppost- the obvious place to look, but not necessarily representative….

  2. I think it’s important to put Fukushima in context- there were many, many structures in Japan that didn’t hold up against the earthquake and tsunami, with disastrous environmental consequences. What fraction of the environmental damage due to the earthquake’s impact on human infrastructure was associated with Fukushima? For example- how did the environmental damage due to Fukushima compare to the damage from the oil refinery fire in Ichibara? I’m not asking these questions rhetorically- I’ve just spent a few minutes looking for an overall assessment of the environmental impact of the quake on the web, and can’t find much. I wonder if all the focus on the radioactive pollution has been a case of the drunk looking for keys under the lamppost- the obvious place to look, but not necessarily representative….

  3. Daniel, Yes, it is true that the tsunami was very destructive across a large area. However, what you seem to not understand is the design of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima absolutely required physical and operational integrity, no matter what the circumstances. In other words, if it could not survive a quake and tsunami, the plant shouldn’t have been built.

    Here’s why: The reactor technology used at Fukushima absolutely requires constant supply of electricity, because it cannot be shut down and just cool down. Why? Look up “energy density.” Nuclear reactors – and there were six of them at Fukushima – are the densest energy sources in the world, and they require MONTHS of pumped water to cool them down. They are still cooling down as i write.

    If not cooled, this reactor design actually expects meltdown, and the consequences can be another Chernobyl. Actually, it was another Chernobyl, but we will be lucky in terms of loss of life, because of the winter wind pattern. Even though that was avoided, the forced evacuation area is tens of billions of lost GDP for Japan, and the loss of public support for nuclear means that Japan is now consuming billions of dollars of coal and natural gas it can ill afford, while still losing GDP and livelihoods to a nationwide energy shortage.

    This is all in addition to the losses from the tsunami, and the point of this article is that these losses all could have been avoided, either by planning for the “real” earthquake/tsunami risk, or by choosing a different site and/or reactor design.

  4. Daniel, Yes, it is true that the tsunami was very destructive across a large area. However, what you seem to not understand is the design of the nuclear reactors at Fukushima absolutely required physical and operational integrity, no matter what the circumstances. In other words, if it could not survive a quake and tsunami, the plant shouldn’t have been built.

    Here’s why: The reactor technology used at Fukushima absolutely requires constant supply of electricity, because it cannot be shut down and just cool down. Why? Look up “energy density.” Nuclear reactors – and there were six of them at Fukushima – are the densest energy sources in the world, and they require MONTHS of pumped water to cool them down. They are still cooling down as i write.

    If not cooled, this reactor design actually expects meltdown, and the consequences can be another Chernobyl. Actually, it was another Chernobyl, but we will be lucky in terms of loss of life, because of the winter wind pattern. Even though that was avoided, the forced evacuation area is tens of billions of lost GDP for Japan, and the loss of public support for nuclear means that Japan is now consuming billions of dollars of coal and natural gas it can ill afford, while still losing GDP and livelihoods to a nationwide energy shortage.

    This is all in addition to the losses from the tsunami, and the point of this article is that these losses all could have been avoided, either by planning for the “real” earthquake/tsunami risk, or by choosing a different site and/or reactor design.

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About Dan

Dan Farber

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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