Reactor crisis wipes £7.4bn from General Electric

The unfolding crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant has put a harsh spotlight on General Electric, the giant US conglomerate which built parts of the plant and which had been hoping to benefit from a renaissance in nuclear power that now looks to be on hold.

Almost $12bn (£7.4bn) has been wiped from the value of the company since Monday, and a retired nuclear engineer revealed how he and several colleagues resigned from GE in 1975 because of his safety concerns over the design of the Mark 1 containment unit used at the plant.

GE beefed up its nuclear business in 2007 by forming a joint venture with Hitachi of Japan that could bid to build new nuclear reactors around the globe. Climate change and energy security concerns are driving a global resurgence in support of nuclear energy, it said at the time.

But China and Germany are among the countries that have already said they will re-examine their nuclear building programmes in the light of events in Japan, and public opposition to nuclear power might now be expected to grow.

Meanwhile, GE is having to contend with criticism over the design of the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, including the wisdom of housing spent fuel rods so close to reactors and their ability to withstand a loss of coolant. David Bridenbaugh, who resigned from GE in 1975, told ABC News why he had decided to quit the company. "The problems we identified in 1975 were that, in doing the design of the containment, they did not take into account the dynamic loads that could be experienced with a loss of coolant," he said.

Analysts say Japanese law would shield GE from any liability. GE says the reactors have a record of working reliably for more than 40 years, and they performed as designed when the earthquake struck. It was the damage caused by the tsunami to the backup generators that triggered the present crisis.

GE said yesterday that it was sending $5.6m in aid, technical assistance and equipment to Japan – including donations from its employees.