Malpractice in the Prehistory to the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Disaster

Aditya Sarkar
June 7, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: The Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant in 2012 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On March 11th 2011, disaster struck the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant, shown in Fig. 1, leading to the explosion of several nuclear reactors. While the Tsunami was the sole cause of the catastrophe, it can be argued that underlying roots which led to history's second biggest nuclear disaster date as far back as 1945 when Japan experienced the destructive capability of the atomic bomb.

Having lost World War II, Japan began their recovery process through the rebuilding of its economy. One of their ambitious goals was utilizing nuclear energy to provide energy to their rapidly growing country. Less than two decades after losing the war, through the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), Japan contracted General Electric, an American company, to build the country's first nuclear power plant in Fukushima on the shore of the Pacific Ocean.

GE Whistleblowing Scandal

In the midst of the construction of the new power plant, GE was embroiled in an infamous whistleblowing scandal regarding the design flaws of their Mark I reactors, which at the time were being installed at the Fukushima Daichi Power Plant. [1] GE, having dragged itself into the race to dominate the nuclear power industry, chose to ignore the engineers' concerns fearing they would lose the foothold they had recently established on the market due to the Fukushima contract. The Japanese authorities, having learned of these flaws, turned a blind eye towards the issue, trusting GE to react appropriately. [2] Through making questionable decisions to avoid major modifications to the previous reactors, Japan was promptly able to make use of the energy produced without experiencing setbacks. Soon afterwards, Japan's nuclear energy program had become a national strategic priority and by 2000 was supplying 30% of the nation's energy.

High stakes

Japan's eagerness to be at the forefront of harnessing nuclear energy was a curse as much as a blessing. While the efficiency of setting up their program was commendable, many safety regulations and considerations were compromised in the process. High stakes were at play here, Japan had not only invested billions of dollars into building the Power Plant, but was also in dire need of the energy the Plant would produce. Any setbacks in the production of energy would not only attract public scorn, but would also come with a very hefty bill. From an economic perspective, nuclear power often follows a trajectory that makes changing course difficult. The massive up-front investment in the beginning takes decades to be recuperated before profit is made, after which hefty profits are enjoyed. Throughout this curve, it is difficult to just say no and risk a disruption in the momentum of the monetary flow. This is further accentuated in countries like Japan where the government has continuously invested large sums of money on the promotion of the nuclear program which by 2000 contributed to almost 10% of the country's GDP. Nuclear energy had become so vital to Japan that it would be impossible to simply suggest putting a spanner in the works, even in the name of safety.

Incidentally, a similar situation was taking place in the American offices of GE. Despite several engineers presenting flaws within the reactor design of the Mark I, they were told that taking action to fix these would not be cost effective. Dale Brindenbaugh, the most famous of the "GE Three", was in fact told explicitly that going back to fix all the flaws in already installed Mark I reactors would have led to unwanted attention that would lead to GE losing the dominance they had gained in the industry since the unveiling of their Mark I reactors. Once again, there was too much at stake for GE to take a step back and guarantee safety rather than simply meet minimum regulations in order to move forward in their quest to conquer the market. Even when these flaws were made apparent to the relevant authority figures in Japan, a joint decision was made with GE to go forward with existing plans. They believed that the probability of a situation arising to expose these flaws was too small to elicit a rectification.


In 1996, having received less than satisfactory safety grades, the Fukushima Power Plant was forced to install secondary backup generators at a higher elevation than the reactors and their existing backup generators. However, these changes did not resolve the possibility of the reactors losing energy in case of tsunami flooding the first generators, since the switchboards (used to transfer the energy from the backup generators to the reactors) were still susceptible to flooding, which would render the secondary generators useless. [3] Moving the switchboards would not only have meant a temporary shutdown of the reactors, but would also be expensive to implement. Looking at this issue from a cost-benefit analysis, TEPCO decided to avoid resolving the issue since the possibility of such an event happening was too small to be significant.

In 2008, TEPCO executives were presented with a report warning them of the vulnerability of the Fukushima plant to tsunami waves higher than 10.2 meters hitting the plant. This vulnerability stemmed from the low seawalls protecting the plant, however increasing the seawall height would not only have been costly, but would additionally be a difficult engineering feat. The executives once again looked at the issue in a cost-benefit analysis point of view, dismissed the severity of the claims the report presented, assuming that waves that high were very unlikely to occur. On the day of the tsunami the waves were over 14 meters high. [4]

The events of Fukushima shed much needed light on the fragile nature of the nuclear energy realm. The world was presented with a staunch reminder that nothing is too big to fail. While the tsunami that eventuall caused the disaster was indeed a phenomenal force of nature which caused several low probability events to take place, it is quite clear that had the management taken a more meticulous and risk aversive approach to safety, the power plant would have withstood the tsunami.

© Aditya Sarkar. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. Mosk, "Fukushima: Mark 1 Nuclear Reactor Design Caused GE Scientist To Quit In Protest," ABC News, 15 Mar 11.

[2] N. Carbone, "Fukushima Reactor Flaws Were Predicted 35 Years Ago," Time, 16 Mar 11.

[3] K. Krolicki and R. Kerber, "Fuel Storage, Safety Issues Vexed Japan Plant," Reuters, 21 Mar 11.

[4] "Genesis of a Disaster: Moment Tsunami Swamps Japan's Doomed Fukushima Nuclear Plant," Daily Mail, 20 May 11.