Fukushima Daiichi crisis: vendor response

GE Hitachi: responding with the industry

22 August 2011

Brian Johnson is VP, US markets for GE Nuclear Energy’s new plant business. Fukushima Daiichi is based on GE?designs.

"GE and Hitachi formed an initial response team led by senior management, and the focus of the team was to provide technical service and support to TEPCO, and facilitate communications between Japan as well as the various entities in the US that were responding to events, including the industry Institute of Nuclear Power Operators (INPO), the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

“We had the full support of GE's nuclear organisation as well as the broader GE corporation. We engaged our network of more than 1000 current and retired engineers. Those teams were available and people were dedicated from that group based on skill sets needed to consult and interpret when needed. We had some local presence in Japan, working closely with our liaison office in Tokyo which links to the Hitachi organisation. It was able to provide a communications bridge between Japan and here.

“We had a response centre in Wilmington, North Carolina that was manned with 24 hour support and senior leadership support. Supporting teams dealt with many issues, including technical and media enquiries; a technical team answered questions from Japan; another team was trying to look at various potential conditions to predictively provide information to TEPCO.”

Has the structure changed since? Other organisations have moved out of an emergency structure.

“We have reduced the level of staffing and moved to a normal working hours-type structure. We do have an on-call person available at all times because of the time difference. The project has progressed into a more sustainable organisational structure that we can continue to man indefinitely.

“There were significant resources mobilised in TEPCO, in Hitachi-GE Nuclear Energy (in Japan) and in GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy (in the USA). Across the industry, people from utilities, other reactor vendors and the industry came together very effectively, coordinated by INPO and NEI, and they channeled questions to the most appropriate organisation, and made sure organisations had the right information.

“Hitachi took the lead with TEPCO. We worked primarily through Hitachi in Japan. We are still responding to some requests from our customers and from the media.

“Beyond engineering and technical resources, within the GE nuclear division, we have mobilised procurement and supply chain efforts to procure equipment, both nuclear and industrial items, to support TEPCO.” [The company has offered 20 gas turbines; in addition, the company and its employees have made $12 million total in donations.]

To what do you attribute the success of the collaborative response effort?

“This industry is a learning industry and tries to anticipate things that it might need to respond to; organisations like INPO have response programmes in place and so in this industry there is somewhat of a propensity to plan for various response scenarios; we plan to overreact at first, and reserve more resources than we think we need, and then scale back accordingly. This philosophy is how the industry has responded effectively. And as a business, we are used to respond to emerging issues from customers 24/7.”

In this situation, what is the role of the vendor?

“To provide technical support to the operators, and offer any assistance that we can. Organisations like INPO and owners’ groups look at things that operators are going to be required to deal with, and prepare training and expertise and procedures. They act as a common industry resource and disseminate lessons learned.”

Did you have any problems finding engineers familiar with such an old design?

“That did not present a challenge. We have extensive depth of talent that spans our product portfolio. TEPCO obviously maintains the reactor to the current design basis, and it has operating expertise of those. GE's core strength is in BWRs. But we did tap into our pool of retirees, and we did contact a few.”

How have your customers reacted?

“This industry's aptitude to learn and try to incorporate lessons learned is strong. It is too early to draw conclusions about what happened, and its fundamental causes. People have taken immediate actions to evaluate their plants, and evaluate any perceived vulnerability. That is part of a healthy culture to look at these things and honestly assess their designs against what is known.”

How would the ESBWR have fared under the same circumstances?

“I don’t think we have enough information about exact conditions to draw comparisons to other technologies. But I would say that the ESBWR was designed with safety as a top priority as all nuclear reactors are. We looked at how it responds to an extended loss of power. It is not challenged by the extended loss of AC power. The ESBWR has a 72-hour time window that is designed to need no operator action or external services such as makeup water or AC power. Beyond 72 hours, it will need a low pressure source of makeup water readily available in order to extend the plant’s safety indefinitely.”

Do you have any information about what upgrades TEPCO has made to the Fukushima Daiichi reactors?

“We do not have detailed information about how they maintained the plant. In the late 1970s, we were doing research on the Mark 3 containment, and identified upgrades to the Mark 1 containment. We communicated this to the NRC, and they made the recommendation, and US utilities have since made changes [see box, p26]. Outside the USA we recommended them to our customers. We don’t know that they all did them, but we understand that they probably did in Japan.

“Clearly we will take back anything gleaned out of this incident, and incorporate it into existing plant designs and new plant licensing. The ESBWR brings the lowest core damage frequency out of all plants being considered today in new-build, 1.65x10-8. It has a lot of safety improvements from defence in depth and diversity, and in its systems’ lack of reliance on external AC.

“The ESBWR has just completed the NRC review in early March [a final law approving the design is expected in September]. We, and the NRC, have a lot of confidence in its design and fundamental safety principles.”

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