Study says Fukushima disaster was preventable

September 21, 2015, University of Southern California

The worst nuclear disaster since the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown never should have happened, according to a new study.

In the peer-reviewed Philosophical Transactions A of the Royal Society, researchers Costas Synolakis of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering and Utku Kâno?lu of the Middle East Technical University in Turkey distilled thousands of pages of government and industry reports and hundreds of news stories, focusing on the run-up to the disaster. They found that "arrogance and ignorance," design flaws, regulatory failures and improper hazard analyses doomed the coastal even before the tsunami hit.

"While most studies have focused on the response to the accident, we've found that there were design problems that led to the disaster that should have been dealt with long before the earthquake hit," said Synolakis, professor of civil and environmental engineering at USC Viterbi. "Earlier government and industry studies focused on the mechanical failures and 'buried the lead.' The pre-event tsunami hazards study if done properly, would have identified the as the lynch pin of a future disaster. Fukushima Dai-ichi was a siting duck waiting to be flooded."

The authors describe the disaster as a "cascade of industrial, regulatory and engineering failures," leading to a situation where critical infrastructure - in this case, backup generators to keep the cooling the plant in the event of main power loss - was built in harm's way.

At the four damaged nuclear power plants (Onagawa, Fukushima Dai-ichi, Fukushimi Dai-ni, and Toka Dai-ni) 22 of the 33 total backup diesel generators were washed away, including 12 of 13 at Fukushima Dai-ichi. Of the 33 total backup power lines to off-site generators, all but two were obliterated by the tsunami.

Unable to cool itself, Fukushima Dai-ichi's reactors melted down one by one.

"What doomed Fukushima Dai-ichi was the elevation of the EDGs (emergency diesel generators)," the authors wrote. One set was located in a basement, and the others at 10 and 13 meters above sea level; inexplicably and fatally low, Synolakis said.

Synolakis and Kâno?lu report that the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), which ran the plant, first reduced the height of the coastal cliffs where the plant was built, underestimated potential tsunami heights, relied on its own internal faulty data and incomplete modeling - and ignored warnings from Japanese scientists that larger tsunamis were possible.

Prior to the disaster, TEPCO estimated that the maximum possible rise in water level at Fukushima Dai-ichi was 6.1 meters - a number that appears to have been based on low-resolution studies of earthquakes of magnitude 7.5, even though up to magnitude 8.6 quakes have been recorded along the same coast where the plant is located.

This is also despite the fact that TEPCO did two sets of calculations in 2008 based on datasets from different sources, each of which suggested that tsunami heights could top 8.4 meters - possibly reaching above 10 meters.

During the 2011 disaster, tsunami heights reached an estimated 13 meters at Fukushimi Dai-ichi - high enough to flood all of the backup generators and wash away power lines.

Further, the 2010 Chilean earthquake (magnitude 8.8) should have been a wake-up call to TEPCO, said Synolakis, who describes it as the "last chance to avoid the accident." TEPCO conducted a new safety assessment of Fukushima Dai-ichi - but used 5.7 meters as the maximum possible height of a tsunami, against the published recommendations of some of its own scientists. TEPCO concluded in November 2010 that they had "assessed and confirmed the safety of the nuclear plants," presenting its findings at a nuclear engineering conference in Japan.

"The problem is that all of TEPCO's studies were done internally, there were no safety factors built in the analysis, which anyway lacked context. Globally, we lack standards for the tsunami-specific training and certification of engineers and scientists who perform hazard studies, and for the regulators who review them, who can in principle ensure that changes be made, if needed." Synolakis said. "How many licensing boards have tsunami-specific questions when granting professional accreditation?"

Lacking tsunami specific training, certification and licensing, the potential for similar mistakes to occur in hazard studies for other coastal nuclear power plants exists, he said. He points to recent studies around the world where lack of experience and context produced tsunami inundation projections with Fukushima size underestimation of the hazard.

Synolakis and Kâno?lu's paper was published on September 21. Their research as supported by ASTARTE Grant 603839 and the National Science Foundation, Award CMMI 1313839. In the same issue of the Philosophical Transactions, another review paper from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and USC discusses hazards in the Eastern Mediterranean, where plants are being planned for construction in the next few years.

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28 comments

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gkam
1.6 / 5 (14) Sep 21, 2015
Nuclear materials and hubris make a deadly combination. There were reports of a LOCA in Unit One before the tsunami hit by some of the technicians who fled at the time. Recordings of high radiation levels were sent out by monitors at points near the plant boundary.

We should shut these deadly turkeys down as soon as practical.
gkam
1.6 / 5 (14) Sep 21, 2015
Here is one report:
http://www.fukule...id=10166

Why do we use technologies which can kill us wholesale, when we have better alternatives?
WillieWard
3 / 5 (8) Sep 21, 2015
deadly combination
Except no-one has died due to radiation released after the Fukushima.
Scaremongers are the real killer; they induced deaths/abortion/anxieties/heartattacks/suicides.
http://www.channe...pression

Wind/solar has killed much more per gigawatt produced than Fukushima. We should shut these deadly bird choppers down as soon as possible.
gkam
1.6 / 5 (14) Sep 21, 2015
Yeah, those scare-mongers have chased out all the inhabitants of Pripyat for no good reason!

And those mutated trees and animals are intentionally there for the tourists.
tekram
2.7 / 5 (7) Sep 21, 2015
deadly combination
Except no-one has died due to radiation released after the Fukushima....
Even if you could put aside the deaths from suicides and evacuations of Japanese residents, there are thousands of Americans exposed to 4 Sievert of radiation on board the USS Ronald Reagan which assisted near Fukushima in the early days of this disaster caused by negligent acts of Tepco executives.
"TEPCO currently faces a $1 Billion class action lawsuit brought by sailors with the USS Ronald Reagan carrier group that assisted in the early days of the Fukushima disaster. "

http://thefifthco...s-ahead/
antigoracle
4 / 5 (4) Sep 21, 2015
Hmm... no mention of the first point of failure; the sea wall.
WillieWard
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 21, 2015
thousands of Americans exposed to 4 Sievert of radiation on board the USS Ronald Reagan
It will ever render scare tales, trillions/zillions of fictional deaths, conspiracy theories.
Eikka
5 / 5 (12) Sep 21, 2015
Americans exposed to 4 Sievert of radiation on board the USS Ronald Reagan


I'd like to see the source for that information. A acute dose of 4-6 Sieverts can actually be fatal within days because it knocks out your immune system and causes internal bleeding and tissue damage. The dead victims of the Goiana accident had doses around that range, so if US marines actually had those doses, we'd be hearing about it.

The highest reported dose among Fukushima rescue workers that I can find was 670 mSv or 0.67 Sieverts.

1 Sievert recieved over time is estimated to increase a person's lifetime cancer risk by 5.5% according to the linear-no-treshold model, which is extrapolated down from people who were exposed to much higher doses.
bertibus
4.4 / 5 (7) Sep 21, 2015
The earthquake / tsunami killed almost 16,000 people and caused in the region of $300 billion dollars worth of damage.
230,000 people were made homeless
The reactor killed no-one, but yeah, it was a nuclear disaster....
ab3a
5 / 5 (10) Sep 21, 2015
"How many licensing boards have tsunami-specific questions when granting professional accreditation?"

Presuming that most engineers are unlikely to comprehend a risk that was not on his or her licensing exam completely misses the point.

What happened in Fukushima is what Engineers call a low-frequency, high-impact risk. The problem isn't just Engineers, it's their bosses. These sorts of risks are often viewed as being analogous to the risk of being trampled by a pink elephant. There is a very good chance that this risk will never be seen in anyone's lifetime --so it is really hard to justify spending capital funding on a risk on the order of one in 500 years. Managers refuse to think any further than that. There are no ramifications for "saving money" on this. There are no recriminations that dog those who make decisions like this.

I'd believe something like that long before taking what Synolakis and Kano wrote seriously.
ab3a
5 / 5 (9) Sep 21, 2015
Why do we use technologies which can kill us wholesale, when we have better alternatives?


We do not have better alternatives. You can dream and wish that wind and solar energy will miraculously save our society, but you will freeze and starve waiting for that to happen.

Furthermore those diffuse energy sources will still need to be stored in concentrated form and that's where we all get in to trouble: Anything capable of releasing energy can also be used to kill us. Gas can explode. Coal dust can explode. Nuclear Energy can leak and irradiate. And any energy storage device is also highly suspect.

You keep wishing for things that simply do not work. If you really want to make a difference, get in to the Engineering side of this and start making those hard choices. That's the only way things will improve.
antialias_physorg
3 / 5 (4) Sep 22, 2015
Study says Fukushima disaster was preventable

Let's just take a moment to note that every disaster is preventable. In theory.
In theory you can build a perfect system. Unfortunately theory does meet reality at some point during the building process, which means.

- lowest bidder contracts (i.e. materials barely fit for the task or even NOT fit for the task as suppliers try to skim off profits on contracts already signed by substituting materials in post)
- human error (in planning, building and operation stages)
- management decisions (i.e. decisions by people who don't know a thing about technology and risk analysis)
- political pressure for large scale projects to be done on time (or - after the usual, copious delays - to get the rest done quickly...which invariably leads to cutting corners)

As an astronaut once said (from memory..notr exact quote): "How safe would you feel on top of a rocket made of a million parts each of which was supplied by the lowest bidder?"
determinist
not rated yet Sep 22, 2015
Philosophical determinism entails that everything that happens, 'must' happen. Everything that happens is scientifically (causally) related to a previous state. It is this inevitable recurring focus of humans on imagined alternatives that causes many undesirable results. Although we must accept this characteristic of human nature, the TRUTH is seldom in our grasp.
Squirrel
5 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2015
The paper is open access and can be accessed here http://rsta.royal...20140379
Eikka
5 / 5 (8) Sep 22, 2015
In theory you can build a perfect system.


In practice, you should at least stick to the plan as given by the design engineers.

The original designs were adequate against the tsunami, until TEPCO deliberately ignored them and lowered the whole plant closer to water to save a trivial amount of money on piping and pumps.

That's like buying a car, and then ripping out the seatbelts and airbags to make the car slightly more fuel efficient.

This whole accident is basically the fault of the top-down culture in Japan where you do not question your higher-ups, where saving face is more important that saving lives.
xponen
1 / 5 (2) Sep 22, 2015
In practice, you should at least stick to the plan as given by the design engineers.

non sense, there is no perfect design. Who want to spend billion fixing the billion already spent for building the thing in first place? what a crappy piece of technology, you can't even shutdown the dam thing without paying more money.
Eikka
5 / 5 (9) Sep 22, 2015
there is no perfect design


And that's why demanding perfection is stupid.

With any source of energy, with any technology whatsoever, there are unintended consequences and accidents, and people die. Even NASA engineers have to calculate that each rocket they launch carries a certain risk, and eventually that many people will get killed - and yet they continue to launch the rockets.

That's because you literally can't do anything, you can't technically even breathe without causing something bad to someone somewhere. Some day someone will catch your flu and die of complications, so should you not breathe?

The question is only, which technology has the least adverse impact relative to the benefits.

Unfortunately, we tend to favor the technologies that kill many far in between, rather than those that kill a few in a single place. Out of sight, out of mind.
Eikka
5 / 5 (9) Sep 22, 2015
Or as Josif Stalin said it: "One death is a tragedy; a million dead is statistics."

That's why it's easy to understand why people make such big deals out of things like nuclear accidents, while completely ignoring and refusing to believe that the alternatives are objectively worse. The simply don't see the million dead - it's an abstract concept that doesn't really feel real because it isn't in your face like the accident on TV as told by political pundits - it's just statistics.

It's easy to understand, but very hard to accept if you put any amount of thought to it.
gkam
1 / 5 (10) Sep 22, 2015
"the alternatives are objectively worse"
-----------------------------------------------

Oh? Prove it.

I do not mean coal, but over the real choice we have for the future, alternative energy and storage.

You want to pay for power from Vogtle, or from wind, PV, and storage? Got a place for the waste?
WillieWard
3.7 / 5 (3) Sep 22, 2015
alternative energy and storage.
Lithium mining pollution aside radioactive rare-earth metals, in fact "the alternatives are objectively worse".
"Lithium is a natural resource that's often extracted from rocks and salt lakes"
http://www.huffin...104.html
"As hundreds of thousands more of these batteries hit the market, the problems that come with lithium mining, battery lifecycles and recycling loom large."
http://www.thegua...owerwall
Vogtle seems worth the price ecologically.
its
5 / 5 (1) Sep 22, 2015
First off almost anything when you look back at it is probably "preventable". If we just did something different! If you are going to point at companies and governments and say if they had designed it different, if they hadn't ignored the warning signs, if ..., if ... Certainly things could be different. This is hardly news.

But by the same token you have people posting here thinking that it would be different with their pet method to get energy. Surely theirs wouldn't be as risky, surely it will never face the same trade offs.

I notice that they conveniently ignore that the fact that the very act of freezing the tech and construction of nuclear plants you people resigned themselves having aging plants with older technology. Making things less safe if they had instead stayed invested in it.
But of course they say that the nuclear plants should have been shutdown long ago!
Only one problem, we don't currently have a replacement, and certainly didn't have it in the past.
gkam
1 / 5 (10) Sep 22, 2015
Same old? Do you not read World Nuclear News? It is full of new units and new ideas. The problem is, they are all dangerous technologies, after the other ones failed to produce power "too cheap to meter", and "Impossible" to melt down.
ab3a
4.6 / 5 (11) Sep 25, 2015
The problem is, they are all dangerous technologies, after the other ones failed to produce power "too cheap to meter", and "Impossible" to melt down.


"Dangerous" is a judgement call. I'm not belittling the risk, I'm merely pointing out that the risk may be considered reasonable for some, such as the French. If you don't have other fuels in abundance, this may not be such a bad choice. China may consider it worth the risk because they're already burning so much coal that they need to grow their economy on something less toxic.

gkam, you're condemning an entire technology because you don't trust anyone. But what you fail to realize is that all technologies at this scale require a great deal of trust. If you knew even a few of the failure modes, you'd never want to get out of bed every day. You need to think about what you call risk and realize that there is a risk to everything, even when you don't do anything.
gkam
1 / 5 (9) Sep 25, 2015
ab3a, No, I am condemning an industry because they are playing with stuff they cannot fully control. We cannot idiot-proof everything, cannot make anything perfectly safe and should not use technologies with such terrible potential consequences.

Yes, I understand generation technologies from education and experience, yes I have a limited experience with nuclear power systems, and yes they are not good investments for society.

You speak of trust, but mean faith. I learned to not trust that idea in my 71 years.
Protoplasmix
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 26, 2015
As an astronaut once said (from memory..notr exact quote): "How safe would you feel on top of a rocket made of a million parts each of which was supplied by the lowest bidder?"
Alan Sheppard said, "It's a very sobering feeling to be up in space and realize that one's safety factor was determined by the lowest bidder on a government contract."

Some other notable quotes from him:

"It's been a long way, but we're here."

"They say any landing you can walk away from was a good one."

"And I think that still is true of this business – which is basically research and development – that you probably spend more time in planning and training and designing for things to go wrong, and how you cope with them, than you do for things to go right."
kochevnik
1 / 5 (1) Sep 26, 2015
US marines actually had those doses, we'd be hearing about it.
Perhaps on planet Eikka. USA covers up for decades as policy
@WW Lithium mining pollution aside radioactive rare-earth metals, in fact "the alternatives are objectively worse".
"Lithium is a natural resource that's often extracted from rocks and salt lakes"
But you enjoy those frutis and vegetables irradiated with fracking water
gkam
1 / 5 (8) Sep 28, 2015
The Japanese government has already given $4,800,000,000 to TEPCO to help it out of its nuclear nightmare. How cheap will that power have been if we counted all the costs?

http://fukushima-...ion-yen/
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.4 / 5 (7) Sep 28, 2015
"They say any landing you can walk away from was a good one."
People say lots of stuff. Chances are sheppard got it from one of these guys.

"If you can walk away from a landing, it's a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it's an outstanding landing." -Chuck Yeager

"Any landing you can walk away from is a good one!" -Gerald R. Massie, U.S. Army Air Forces photographer. Written in 1944 after the crash-landing of his B-17

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