How to Save California

Article excerpt

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. …