Of Earthquakes and Nuclear Reactors

by |April 6, 2011

Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex, Okumamachi, Japan, 2010. photo Inconnu via WikiCommons

As Japan’s nuclear meltdown catastrophe continues in the wake of the March 11 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami, Japanese power company executives and officials face an increasingly challenging situation. Tuesday morning, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) — the company operating the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant — dumped more than 11,000 gallons of radioactive seawater into the Pacific Ocean to make room for the more highly contaminated cooling water that continues to issue forth from a reactor leak. TEPCO said it was running out of space in the facility’s cooling water storage tanks, but meanwhile, Japanese authorities have reported that radioactive particulate matter in the seawater near the plant is now 7.5 million times above the normal level.

Although the concentration of radioactive material in the recently expelled cooling water is low compared to the water spilling from a reactor leak that hasn’t been found yet, many are wondering about potential longterm health impacts, both in Japan and around the Pacific rim. More immediately, a handful of power plant workers, convinced that the radiation they’ve been exposed to will kill them, sacrificed themselves to save the rest of the country, continuing repair work despite the high odds of death.

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, San Luis Obispo County, Calif., 2005. photo by marya via WikiCommons

In the U.S., California residents saw the effect’s of Japan’s quake and tsunami as waves hit the Golden State’s shores, more than 5,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean. But the recent Japanese temblor, along with the four-facility nuclear meltdown that followed, has also drawn attention to the two nuclear power facilities situated along California’s slice of Pacific coastline. Southern California Edison owns and operates the plant located in San Onofre — not far from San Diego — and Pacfic Gas & Electric runs the one at Diablo Canyon, in San Luis Obispo County, on the state’s Central Coast. While both seaside facilities have always made the public a bit nervous, Diablo Canyon has come under the lens of more intense scrutiny over the past year as PG&E begins the application process for renewal of its 20-year operating permit from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The debate has been particularly intense this time around because seismic studies conducted by the USGS since PG&E’s last permit was issued in 1984 show a faultline that wasn’t previously known — it’s less than 2,000 feet offshore from Diablo Canyon. The fault, known as Shoreline, is capable of delivering a 6.5 magnitude earthquake. Many Californians, including Congresswoman Lois Capps (D-CA), want PG&E to perform a detailed, $17 million 3-D seismic study before the NRC even considers their permit application.

No matter how safe a nuclear power plant is designed to be, though, there is always concern — whether overt or lurking deep within the subconscious — about what could happen. If a coal plant blows up, that’s that, but when a nuclear plant goes berserk, well, places like Chernobyl and, now, Japan, offer testament to how that goes. That’s because a nuclear power plant can never be truly shut down. Even when a facility is decommissioned, the cooling system has to be maintained. Decaying radioactive fuel, spent fuel, unused fuel — it all produces heat. In other words, there’s no off switch to throw in the even of a disaster. Man can only exert so much control over a nuclear reaction because once one begins, it won’t stop until it’s done (depending upon the isotope, radioactive waste remains a threat to animal life for anywhere from 10,000 to several hundred thousand years). So if a plant — even one that’s been shut down — sits atop an active earthquake fault, there’s always a potential that the cooling system could be knocked out like the ones in Japan were.

TEPCO had redundant safety systems and a knowledgeable staff going for it, but what it didn’t have was tsunami-proof emergency diesel generators. No diesel generators meant no electricity to run the cooling pumps. I don’t have to tell you what happened next. For the second time in a hundred years, the Japanese populace is dealing with a radioactive mess. As contamination from the leaking reactor spreads, the country’s fishing industry wonders how it will function. That’s a big deal for a nation whose primary source of protein comes from the ocean.

So far, the only Japanese radiation seen in the western U.S. has shown up as trace amounts of the radioactive isotope Iodide-131 in Idaho and Washington State drinking water. The EPA says its nothing to get alarmed about, but the occurrence does cause one to consider what it would be like if the tables were turned and the radioactive nightmare were on this side of the Pacific. California, as America’s most populous state, isn’t nearly as densely peopled as Japan, but the majority of Californians live on the coastline, clustered around those two nuclear power stations. From that perspective, going through PG&E’s NRC permit application with a fine-toothed comb, complete with all the multi-million-dollar bells and whistles of advanced seismic studies, sounds like a pretty good idea.

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William Smith

This is a historic moment, and one to be seized as a turning point in the nuclear power industry. Funding this type of infrastructure renewal will also help the ailing local economies and avert potential disasters that no one can afford.