April 1, 2011

The Japanese nuclear crisis has created a public-relations headache for General Electric, but the company so far has escaped any legal fallout, and many experts expect it will continue to do so.

GE designed the Mark 1 containment systems used in reactors at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and after a magnitude 9 earthquake and a tsunami devastated northeast Japan on March 11, vessels intended to protect the reactors came under severe stress amidst explosions and fires and may have leaked radiation.

In the three weeks since the disaster, no lawsuits are known to have been filed against Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE either in Japan or in the United States. While GE could face lawsuits in the future, of course, any potential plaintiffs would have to overcome high hurdles, according to a wide array of legal experts, including nuclear law specialists and lawyers who represent plaintiffs and defendants in mass-tort litigation.

Japanese officials have not yet been able to assess the performance of GE’s Mark 1 containment design. But critics have pointed to concerns raised more than 30 years ago by GE engineers and others about the design’s durability. GE says the containment system has a “proven track record of safety and reliability for over 40 years” and that systems in use worldwide met international regulatory requirements when they were constructed. The Japanese reactors using the GE containment design were installed in the 1970s.

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