The Myth of Nuclear Containment

by Jim Riccio

March 12, 2011

Our thoughts are with our colleagues, friends and all the people of Japan as they continue to deal with the aftereffects of yesterday’s earthquake and tsunami. We are tracking the developments at Japan’s nuclear plants as they race to try to avoid a meltdown.

Nuclear plants like the one at Fukushima were never designed to withstand a meltdown of the reactor core and wont. This is an excerpt from our Greenpeace Report : American Chernobyl:


For a reactor accident to have Chernobyl like consequences a meltdown must be accompanied by containment failure. Unfortunately the term “containment” belies the facts.  The public interest community has long been aware that the containments around many of the US reactors are more myth than reality.  

As early as 1971, government regulators knew that the public’s last line of defense against the radiation, the reactor containment, was virtually worthless yet licensed the General Electric (GE) and Westinghouse Ice Condenser reactors anyway.  When an Atomic Energy Commission’s (AEC) staff member suggested that this type of containment design be banned in the U.S. the AEC’s deputy director for technical review responded that it “could well be the end of nuclear power. It would throw into question the continued operation of licensed plants, could make unlicensable the GE and Westinghouse ice condenser plants now in review and would generally create more turmoil than I can think about.”    (See Appendix B.)

Of course the nuclear bureaucrats did not want to reveal the truth about the fallibility of the nuclear reactors they had already licensed as “safe” and attempted to withhold the information from the public.  
Only though the efforts of the Union of Concerned Scientists, their attorneys and those at Public Citizen did the information eventually come to light under the Freedom of Information Act.

In 1986 Harold Denton, former director of NRC’s Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, again acknowledged this vulnerability while speaking to utilities executives at Brookhaven National Laboratory.  Denton noted that, according to NRC studies the GE Mark I reactors had “something like a 90% probability of that containment failing.”  

Jim Riccio

By Jim Riccio

Jim Riccio served as Greenpeace’s Nuclear Policy Analyst from 2001 to 2017 and has over two decades of nuclear activist experience. He has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe, and has appeared on ABC News, NBC News, Al Jazeera, CNN, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel.

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