TOKYO — Emergency vents that American officials have said would prevent devastating hydrogen explosions at nuclear plants in the United States were put to the test in Japan — and failed to work, according to experts and officials with the company that operates the crippled Fukushima Daiichi plant.
The failure of the vents calls into question the safety of similar nuclear power plants in the United States and Japan. After the venting failed at the Fukushima plant, the hydrogen gas fueled explosions that spewed radioactive materials into the atmosphere, reaching levels about 10 percent of estimated emissions at Chernobyl, according to Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency.
Venting was critical to relieving pressure that was building up inside several reactors after the March 11 tsunami knocked out the plant’s crucial cooling systems. Without flowing water to cool the reactors’ cores, they had begun to dangerously overheat.
American officials had said early on that reactors in the United States would be safe from such disasters because they were equipped with new, stronger venting systems. But Tokyo Electric Power Company, which runs the plant, now says that Fukushima Daiichi had installed the same vents years ago.
Government officials have also suggested that one of the primary causes of the explosions was a several-hour delay in a decision to use the vents, as Tokyo Electric managers agonized over whether to resort to emergency measures that would allow a substantial amount of radioactive materials to escape into the air.
But the release this week of company documents and interviews with experts provides the most comprehensive evidence yet that mechanical failures and design flaws in the venting system also contributed to delays. The documents paint a picture of increasing desperation at the plant in the early hours of the disaster, as workers who had finally gotten the go-ahead to vent realized that the system would not respond to their commands.
While venting would have allowed some radioactive materials to escape, analysts say that those releases would have been far smaller than those that followed the explosions at three of the plant’s reactors, which blew open containment buildings meant to serve as a first line of defense against catastrophe. The blasts may also have been responsible for breaches in containment vessels that have complicated efforts to cool the fuel rods and contain radioactive leaks from the site.
One reason the venting system at the plant, which was built by General Electric, did not work is that it relied on the same sources of electricity as the rest of the plant: backup generators that were in basements at the plant and vulnerable to tsunamis. But the earthquake may also have damaged the valves that are part of the venting system, preventing them from working even when operators tried to manually open them, Tokyo Electric officials said.
In either case, regulators in the United States and Japan will now need to determine if such systems at similar plants designed by G.E. need to undergo expensive and time-consuming retrofitting or redesign to allow them to function even in severe accidents.
“Japan is going to teach us lessons,” said David Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “If we’re in a situation where we can’t vent where we need to, we need to fix that.”
Officials from General Electric did not comment on Tuesday.
The seriousness of the crisis at the Fukushima plant became evident within hours of the quake and the tsunami that rushed over the plant’s sea wall.
Just 12 hours after the quake, the pressure inside Reactor No. 1 had reached roughly twice the maximum pressure the unit had been designed to withstand, raising fears that the vessels that house fuel rods would rupture, setting a possible meltdown in motion. With the pressure high, pumping in additional cooling water also was not possible.
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