How to Save California

By Begley, Sharon; Murr, Andrew | Newsweek, April 4, 2011 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

How to Save California

Begley, Sharon, Murr, Andrew, Newsweek

Byline: Sharon Begley and Andrew Murr

After the disaster trifecta in Japan--quake, tsunami, nuclear crisis--Californians are asking if they might be next. The state's two reactors sit near seismic faults, tsunamis are a risk, and evacuation plans are iffy. Did someone say 'prepared'?

The earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in Japan have filled airwaves, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts, and media reports with countless terrifying phrases, from "core meltdown" and "radiation cloud" to "9.0" and "10,000 dead." But for regions vulnerable to quakes and tsunamis--especially if, like Japan, they hit the trifecta of having nuclear plants in the crosshairs of those natural disasters--there have been no scarier words than these: Japan is the most earthquake- and tsunami-prepared country on the planet.

This, we now know, is what "well prepared" looks like: total loss of power at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor, which deprived the reactor core and spent-fuel pools of cooling water. Fires and explosions that released radioactivity. Sea walls built for a "worst case" tsunami swamped like a child's sandcastle. No running water, electricity, or heat for thousands of the 700,000 refugees, who in some shelters lived on one and a half rice balls a day.

"In light of the record-breaking earthquake in Japan, how can we think we are prepared?" says Charles Ferguson, a nuclear expert and president of the Federation of American Scientists. No place in the U.S. is asking that with greater urgency than the West Coast and, in particular, California. The state, which sits at the epicenter of the nation's most intense seismic activity, has two oceanside nuclear-power plants near active faults (two of which were discovered only after the plants were built) and in the bull's-eye of tsunamis barreling across the Pacific.

Assessing the risks to California--or any other vulnerable locale--and its chances of withstanding them comes down to two calculations: the likelihood of a particular disaster occurring and the adequacy of mitigation and recovery plans. California has a 99.7 percent chance of being hit by an earthquake with a magnitude of 6.7 or greater within the next 30 years, explains Richard Allen, associate director of the Seismological Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. The most likely sites are along the Hayward fault, which runs through the San Francisco Bay Area, and the southern San Andreas, east of Los Angeles. "We think that the longest sections of the faults that can rupture are equivalent to a magnitude-8 earthquake," says Allen. An 8.0 would cause some $100 billion in damage, he says, and kill hundreds and possibly thousands--"way beyond the scale of what people think is possible in a modern, industrial state."

Yet states are falling woefully short on preparations needed to cope with a natural or man-made nuclear disaster (such as terrorists attacking a nuclear plant), according to an analysis just released in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness. Most of the 38 state health departments responding to a survey had few or no plans for public-health surveillance in the event of a radiation leak. Overall, the average "radiological preparedness score" for 26 states with a nuclear plant was 4.76 out of 10. The authors wouldn't release individual states' responses, and the California Public Health Department told NEWSWEEK that although it had a plan and holds drills, it was not aware of the study and did not participate. As for radiological disaster, says spokesman Mike Sicilia: "We are as prepared as any other state is."

For years, Allen and colleagues have been developing an earthquake early-warning system in California, placing 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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

How to Save California


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?