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Tana Wojczuk: Fukushima’s Nuclear Disaster Foretold In 1976

March 9, 2012

The origins of the problems at Fukushima are far older and far more sinister.

mixtape.jpgPhotograph courtesy of Mark Minor.

March 11th will mark the one-year anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. Cleanup is still under way and the level of radiation exposure is still unknown. The massive earthquake and Tsunami that hit Japan are rightly blamed for the disaster at Fukushima but in fact the origins of the problem are far older and more sinister. In 1976 three nuclear engineers resigned from General Electric over massive safety issues they foresaw for nuclear power. The Mark1 reactor they helped design and build was the same reactor that failed at Fukushima. The engineers, Dale G. Bridenbaugh, Richard B. Hubbard and Gregory C. Minor, became known as the “GE Three.” Their defection came just as concerns over nuclear power were beginning to go mainstream, and the GE Three provided expert testimony that helped catalyze America’s first anti-nuclear movement.

Gregory C. Minor’s son, Mark, recalls the incident that finally spooked his father into quitting. Minor had worked on the reactor and control room design for a GE Plant called “Brown’s Ferry” in Alabama. His role at GE was to increase plant security by simplifying the controls and adding layers of defense. “It was stupid human error,” Mark says. The plant had backup plan after backup plan but one employee “went looking for leaks with a candle and caught the electrical system on fire.” Even though the plans called for essential systems to be backed up, someone had built the plant so that all the wires went through one tunnel. When one part of the electrical system went it all went. “It was a horrific accident where nothing happened,” Mark explains. “Somehow the system shut down,” but the scare was enough to make Minor realize that no matter how well a plant was designed, something could always go wrong. That “X factor,” as he called it, was usually simple human error, something that even the most brilliant engineer couldn’t plan for.

Minor, Bridenbaugh and Hubbard testified to this before a congressional hearing of the JCAE (Judicial Commission on Atomic Energy). The Brown’s Ferry fire, they said, was entirely the result of human error and had “narrowly missed causing a meltdown of the core.”⁠ According to their testimony, the ”issue is not the fact of human error—but the realization that despite nuclear reactors being designed to account for human error, innumerable events have occurred where human error has seriously jeopardized plant and public safety.”

Mark explains that his father didn’t want them blaming anyone for his death, but the Acute Myeloid Leukemia that Minor died of is the same type of cancer suffered by victims of Hiroshima.

After quitting the job he had trained for all his life, Minor was at loose ends. He had three children to support and there was no way anyone in the nuclear industry would hire him. “He was prepared to become an electrician,” Mark remembers. But as it turns out nuclear expertise was becoming useful to many more than those within the industry. Minor began getting calls from activists, legislators, even foreign governments to advise on nuclear safety, and so he, Hubbard and Bridenbaugh started MHB consulting.

MHB would consult with a wide-range of people concerned about the safety of nuclear power. In one instance, Minor was hired by the Viennese government after the fall of the Soviet Union. They were worried about the reactors left behind by the Soviets in countries with no money to do the necessary upkeep. But Minor’s most star-studded turn came when he was hired by actor/producer Michael Douglas as a technical advisor on the film The China Syndrome. The title comes from a hypothetical scenario where a nuclear plant’s reactor melts down, “all the way to China” but not before hitting groundwater and expelling radioactive particles into the atmosphere. Douglas co-starred in the film with Jane Fonda, who was already an avid anti-nuke activist. Douglas, then on the fence about nukes, as he said, hired Minor to make sure the meltdown scenario and control room procedure were as accurate as possible.

In the film, a journalist (Fonda) and her cameraman (Douglas) are filming a fluff piece about nuclear power when an accident occurs while they are in the plant. Initially the viewer is just as confused as Fonda, but later the whole thing is explained by a shadowy engineer named in the credits as Greg Minor (played by an actor). The engineer, watching Douglas’s secret footage of the event, explains what happened: A relief valve gets stuck open, allowing coolant to escape. Human error leads to more coolant being released by the accident—an operator misreads the coolant levels and thinks there is too much rather than too little—leading to a near-meltdown.

The film garnered Best Actor/Actress nominations for both Douglas and Fonda, but would have nevertheless become a footnote in cinema history without the events that followed. 12 days after the film was released in 1979 the reactor at Three-Mile island melted down, under the very circumstances described in the film. Minor had feared the very events he helped to make so realistic in the film, and now his fears had become entirely real.

Minor retired from MHB in 1999, but only a month later he was diagnosed with late-stage leukemia. A month after that he was dead. Mark explains that his father didn’t want them blaming anyone for his death, but the Acute Myeloid Leukemia that Minor died of is the same type of cancer suffered by victims of Hiroshima.

The anti-nuclear movement in America has become far more sophisticated with the help of whistle-blowing engineers like the G.E. Three. Henry Wasseman, author of the alternative energy book Solartopia and founder of nukefree.org, believes that activists now “know more about the technologies themselves and have people in them who have been at it for decades.” And, he says, they are succeeding. “In 1974” he says, “Nixon said there would be 1,000 nuclear plants in the United States in 100 years, now there are 104.”

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Tana Wojczuk is the Assistant Editor for the Guernica Daily. Her work has appeared in Tin House, The Believer, Lapham’s Quarterly,The Huffington Post, Narrative, The Rumpus, Bomb Magazine, Treehugger and elsewhere. She has received a Wurlitzer Foundation fellowship and Academy of American Poets University Prize. Tana has taught writing at Columbia University and Yeshiva University in New York. Visit her at tanawojczuk.com or on Twitter (@tanawojczuk).

  Russ Baker: Renewing Our Views, Japanese Style: Japan has committed to building an entirely new, less nuclear-reliant energy policy. Maybe we should consider doing the same. More
 
  Rebecca Solnit: Unpacking for a Disaster: What You Need to Survive the Unexpected: In the wake of its present disaster, Japan may already be changing, and that may not be a bad thing. More
     
  Joshua Holland: Japan Nuclear Disaster Unprecedented—No Way to Know About U.S. Impact: Events taking place in the Fukushima No. 1 power plant are simply unprecedented and the situation appears to be deteriorating. More
 
  Norman Solomon: Nuclear Power Madness: With the nuclear meltdowns in japan, it’s up to us to peacefully and insistently shut our U.S. plants down. More

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