On Japan’s nuclear crisis, and more welfare rumblings

Illustration by Tim Denee – www.timdenee.com

The nuclear crisis in Japan is a textbook example of why government regulation is essential for public safety. According to this New York Times story, the design risks associated with the type of General Electric designed Mark 1 boiling water reactors now in trouble at the Fukushima Daiichi complex were known and identified as long ago as 1972, shortly after the design came on stream.
Essentially, the design involved building the containment core cheaply, a key selling point in peddling the design successfully to customers around the world.

G.E. began making the Mark 1 boiling water reactors in the 1960s, marketing them as cheaper and easier to build — in part because they used a comparatively smaller and less expensive containment structure. American regulators began identifying weaknesses very early on.

In 1972, Stephen H. Hanauer, then a safety official with the Atomic Energy Commission, recommended in a memo that the sort of “pressure-suppression” system used in G.E.’s Mark 1 plants presented unacceptable safety risks and that it should be discontinued. Among his concerns were that the smaller containment design was more susceptible to explosion and rupture from a buildup in hydrogen — a situation that may have unfolded at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. “What are the safety advantages of pressure suppression, apart from the cost saving?” Mr. Hanauer asked in the 1972 memo

While explicitly agreeing with Hanauer’s concerns in this memo the regulatory authorities at the time responded with the classic line of argument – deeply ironic in the light of current events – that the design had been so quickly and widely embraced by G.E.’s customers that effective regulation of the product was no longer feasible :

The technology had been so widely accepted by the industry and regulatory officials that “reversal of this hallowed policy, particularly at this time, could well be the end of nuclear power.”

Non-regulation, as it now turns out, may also now be the end of nuclear power. Or at least the end of the road for the 23 reactors in 16 US plants that share the same design as the Fukushima plant, and which should now be de-commissioned. Clearly, the recall of a dodgy nuclear power plant design is on a far larger scale than the recall of a faulty Toyota automobile. In this case, the design flaws were exposed by an additional factor. There was a mistaken belief that an earthquake would pose the main risk threat to the Fukushima complex, and not the tsunami that would come in its wake.

At Fukushima, the reactors were situated on low lying ground behind a sea wall – with the assumption being that the plant could survive an earthquake (which it did) and that the sea wall would effectively block the tsunami (which it didn’t):

The tsunami that followed the quake washed over walls that were supposed to protect the plants, disabling the diesel generators crucial to maintaining power for the reactors’ cooling systems during shutdown. Cooling system malfunctions caused overheating and partial fuel meltdowns at two reactors at the Daiichi plant, becoming Japan’s worst nuclear accident.

Peter Yanev, one of the world’s best-known consultants on designing nuclear plants to withstand earthquakes, said the seawalls at the Japanese plants probably could not handle tsunami waves of the height that struck them. And the diesel generators were situated in a low spot on the assumption that the walls were high enough to protect against any likely tsunami. That turned out to be a fatal miscalculation. The tsunami walls either should have been built higher, or the generators should have been placed on higher ground to withstand potential flooding, he said.

In other words, a bad design peddled far and wide before the risks could be safely assessed and regulated, and then placed in an environment where those risks would become a potentially lethal health risk to millions of people. There would hardly be a clearer example of market failure, and the folly of industry self-regulation when it comes to public safety.


Weird Welfare Notions

Talking of regulation, more media attention should have been paid to this excellent piece last week by Greens Co-Leader Metiria Turei, who picked up on one of the loonier flights of fancy emanating from the Welfare Working Group. Turei cited this bizarre passage from the WWG’s final report, which says at page 53 :

Active job search and retraining is also likely to increase the total number of jobs available. This is partly because of the multiplier effect of higher incomes on the rest of the economy. Active job search will also lead to increased employment because of the dynamic nature of the labour market. … More generally, the evidence suggests that if there are well functioning labour market institutions, over the medium term the total number of jobs will expand to equal the number of people who are available and actively seeking work.

Got that? Seek ye for jobs, and ye shall find them. Because, according to the evangelists on the WWG panel, the number of jobs will magically expand to equal the number of people available and actively looking for them. Oh, that’s if there are ‘well functioning market institutions’. One day, we will reach that Promised Land.

Or at least some of us will. Not so many of the teeming poor though, who may well be forced via the Welfare Working Group recommendations (the key quotes are on p 77) into being injected with long acting contraceptives as a condition of getting a benefit. In the 1970s, there was a howling outcry about an identical proposal to force women into accepting injections of Depo Provera. Barely a ripple this time around – apart from a few honourable exceptions like this solid analysis on the Hand Mirror website.

Turei again, made a good fist of pressing Social Development Minister Paula Bennett on WWG issues in the House.

While Bennett stonewalled on which WWG recommendations she would accept or reject and gave no timeframe for her eventual decisions, Turei rightly concluded that this meant the contraception proposal (and other draconian WWG suggestions) were still a live issue:

[Bennett]confirmed that she is considering the sinister recommendation that women on the Domestic Purposes Benefit be given long-acting contraception in conjunction with ‘information about expectations’ of benefit receipt. “The clear implication is that benefits could be linked to contraception, a policy that borders on eugenics. The Minister refused to rule this out today.

It would be interesting to see what would happen if a court challenge eventually has to be mounted – under say, the Bill of Rights and/or the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – if women caring for children are to be denied the means to support their families unless they accept “long active reversible contraception” being injected into their bodies. Remember when people whipped themselves into a frenzy because the Nanny State was allegedly trying to regulate their shower nozzles? Those were the good old days.


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