When Martha Stewart – an American icon of domestic bliss and wholesome values – was caught up in a stock scandal, she was convicted of four felonies, including a felony charge of making false statements to the U.S. government. The case left the U.S. reeling – and landed Martha in a federal correctional institute.
Most people would agree that Martha’s stock scandal would pale in comparison to, say, GE Hitachi – a nuclear supplier – taking taxpayer money to pay up to half the costs of developing, engineering and obtaining design certification for a new reactor – and then being charged by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) with lying to federal government agencies about known flaws in their analysis for that design – flaws which could have potentially resulted in safety problems.
With the ongoing specter of the triple reactor core meltdowns and exploded containment buildings of the GE-designed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors nearing its third year, nuclear safety should be of upmost importance. Both nuclear suppliers and operators should be held liable for risks they create.
Yet, on 23 January 2014, the DOJ announced it accepted $2.7 million dollars to settle the government’s lawsuit against GE Hitachi for false statements to both the U.S. Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for their new design, the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor (ESBWR). GE Hitachi says the allegations haven’t been proven and that it settled to resolve the matter.
The U.S. government accused GE Hitachi of, “conceal[ing] known flaws in its steam dryer analysis and falsely represented that it had properly analyzed the steam dryer in accordance with applicable standards and had verified the accuracy of its modeling using reliable data.” This analysis specifically related to demonstrating that vibrations of the steam dryer wouldn’t cause damage to the nuclear reactor.
A steam dryer is not considered a primary safety component, and therefore receives a lot less attention. Yet, the nuclear industry itself admits that maintaining the structural integrity of this component is essential to ensure vibrations don’t cause cracking and loose debris that can enter the reactor pressure vessel and steam lines and compromise the operation of the reactor.
The current allegations eerily echo cover up allegations from the 1970 and 80s involving the work of GE and Hitachi at Fukushima.
In the 1970s, Dale Bridenbaugh and other top GE engineers resigned from their prestigious positions within GE over the company’s failure to address critical design flaws with their Mark 1 Boiling Water Reactor – the same reactor design that catastrophically failed at Fukushima Daiichi in March, 2011 causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.
Hitachi, too, failed to address a safety issue during the construction of one of the crippled, GE-designed Fukushima reactors, actively flaunted Japanese law during the fabrication of the reactor pressure vessel – a critical component which contains the reactor core. Instead of scrapping the pressure vessel after a deformation was discovered, Hitachi attempted to correct it ad hoc and cover up the problem – in the interest of money. The integrity of the pressure vessel could never be guaranteed. Legally Hitachi was required to discard it, but as Mitsuhiko Tankana, the Babcock-Hitachi leader for the reactor pressure vessel project, stated in the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, “When the stakes are raised to such a height, a company will not do what is safe and what is legal.”
Four decades later, it seems –according to the U.S. government’s charges – that the same corporate culture at Fukushima Daiichi – including dismissing design flaws and covering up problems – has continued.
The situation highlights one of the core problems with the nuclear industry – in many countries liability laws and regimes exempt nuclear suppliers from all liability for the risks they create. That means, even when a supplier is negligent, they are not liable for a dollar in damages.
GE, for example, has so far walked away from the Fukushima disaster – in spite of the fact the corporation had ignored warnings from its own engineers about the problems in the design – without paying anything. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of Fukushima nuclear evacuees are still struggling to obtain adequate compensation for destroyed lives, livelihoods, and communities that many will never be able to return home to.
Shielding nuclear suppliers, like GE Hitachi, from all liability for risk – and unfairly shifting that financial burden to taxpayers and consumers – only increases the likelihood that flaws will be ignored or concealed and accident risks increased.
Helping to protect the public, both financially and from the potential health impacts of a nuclear accident, requires addressing one of the main roots of the problem: the economic incentive to downplay flaws and problems must be removed and the financial burden must be placed squarely on the shoulders of those who have created them – nuclear suppliers.
Kendra Ulrich is an Energy Campaigner with Greenpeace International.
(Image: Fukushima Anniversary Protest in Hong Kong. In the lead up to the second anniversary of the Fukushima meltdowns Greenpeace activists unfurl a banner reading: "Hitachi: Inspire the Next Fukushima?", at the company's Hong Kong office. Companies Hitachi, GE and Toshiba have paid nothing for the nuclear disaster despite designing, building and maintaining the known dangerous Fukushima Daiichi plant. Greenpeace is calling for laws to be changed to ensure all companies involved to be accountable for nuclear disasters. 03/08/2013 © Clement Tang / Greenpeace)