J. D. Heyes
Aug 17, 2012
In the wake of Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant disaster, a number of atomic experts have begun to weigh the potential consequences of a similar incident in the United States – what would happen if a massive earthquake-triggered tsunami were to plow into a seaside nuclear plant? Is the nation – or the state in which the plant sits – really prepared for such an event?
Those questions began to swirl within industry circles before the smoke at Fukushima cleared and crews were able to get into the complex to assess and try to control the damage. Many drew the same conclusion: One of the most obvious candidates for this scenario is California, because it is located at the epicenter of the country’s most active seismic zone and has two nuclear plants near active faults (two of which were discovered after the plants were built). The location of these plants also puts them in the crosshairs of tsunamis that would barrel across the Pacific Ocean, Newsweek magazine reported.
If anyone asks, the plants, the state and the federal government say they are “prepared” for any eventuality involving the seaside plants. But the Japanese said the same thing before Fukushima, experts have noted. In fact, Japan – accustomed to seismic activity – was said to be the most well-prepared.
So much for that.
$100 billion in damage, thousands dead
“In light of the record-breaking earthquake in Japan, how can we think we are prepared?” Charles Ferguson, a nuclear expert and president of the Federation of American Scientists, told the magazine.
Experts use a pair of calculations to assess the risks to California or any other location considered vulnerable: the likelihood of a certain kind of disaster occurring at all and how well-developed are plans to mitigate damage and recover the area.
Using that matrix, Richard Allen, an associate director of the Seismological Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley, estimates that California has a whopping 99.7 percent chance of being struck by an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 or more within the next three decades.
He says the most likely fault line is the Hayward fault, which extends through San Francisco Bay and the southern portion of the San Andreas, which are east of Los Angeles.
“We think that the longest sections of the faults that can rupture are equivalent to a magnitude-8 earthquake,” Allen told Newsweek. An event that is 8.0 or larger would be catastrophic, causing as much as $100 billion or more in damage, and killing hundreds – perhaps thousands – of people. It would be “way beyond the scale of what people think is possible in a modern, industrial state.”
Despite that reality, most states are woefully under-prepared to cope with a nuclear disaster; either one that occurs naturally or is man-made (as in a terrorist attack), according to a recent study in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness.
Early warning – But to what extent?
According to the study, most of the 38 state health departments that responded to a survey said they either had few or no plans for public health surveillance following a radiation leak.
Because of that, and because of the inherent risk to California, Allen and colleagues have, for years, been developing an early warning system for earthquakes throughout the state, placing measuring instruments in many of the state’s fault lines.
“Readings feed into a prototype system that, since 2006, has detected hundreds of quakes and calculated their magnitude, all in seconds to tens of seconds before they hit,” Newsweek said.
And while that may not seem like much time, Allen and Co. say it could be enough for trains to stop before running off rails, for people to get under tables, and – importantly – for nuclear plants to initiate emergency procedures.
Diablo Canyon, 12 miles southwest of San Luis Obispo, is located on the Hosgri fault and the Shoreline fault; San Onofre, in San Diego County next to I-5, sits near the Oceanside and Newport-Inglewood/Rose Canyon faults, the magazine said.
This article was posted: Friday, August 17, 2012 at 2:27 am