Nuclear Disaster in Japan: Does It Show a Way Forward for Nuclear Power?

By Bailey, Ronald | Reason, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Disaster in Japan: Does It Show a Way Forward for Nuclear Power?


Bailey, Ronald, Reason


AS I WRITE THIS, cleanup workers had entered one of the Fukushima nuclear reactor buildings for the first time since explosions rocked the plant, the day after it was inundated by a tsunami generated by a devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake on March II. In early April, the Japanese government elevated the disaster to Level 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. That is the highest level on the scale, putting it on a par with the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion.

The good news is that the Fukushima reactors emitted only about a tenth as much radioactive material as Chernobyl, most of which floated out over uninhabited ocean where it was diluted to background levels in seawater. The plant's owner, Tokyo Electric Power, now expects to have the reactors and spent-fuel pools cool and stable in nine months, just shy of a year after the tsunami knocked them out. The cleanup will cost billions of dollars, and the company may end up being nationalized. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that while its monitors have detected traces of radionuclides (unstable atoms that undergo radioactive decay) from Fukushima in America, all of the radiation levels detected "are hundreds of times below levels of concern."

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Naturally, many activists and policy makers cited the disaster as evidence that nuclear power is inherently unsafe and should be banned. In Germany, for example, thousands of antinuclear protesters flooded the streets of Berlin in March shouting, "Turn them off!" In April, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced, "We want to exit from nuclear power generation as soon as possible and make the transition to renewable energy sources faster" In the United States, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) urged a moratorium on building new nuclear plants.

Could a Fukushima-level disaster happen here? Although earthquakes can occur all over the United States, the West Coast and Alaska are the most seismically active regions. The facilities whose physical locations most closely resemble that of the Fukushima plants are two nuclear generating plants built on the coast of California, the Diablo Canyon Power Plant near San Luis Obispo and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station near San Diego. The two reactors at the Diablo Canyon, which are located 85 feet above the coast, began operation in the mid-1980s and are built to withstand a 7.5-magnitude earthquake. A January 2011 analysis presented to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by Pacific Gas & Electric geologists downgraded the most likely earthquake in the area to about half that size.

The two reactors at San Onofre, which began operating in 1968, are built to withstand a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. Seismic analysis indicates that the largest likely earthquake near that facility would register a magnitude of 6.5. The San Onofre reactors are enclosed by a 30-foothigh tsunami wall. It should be noted that nearby Newport Beach experienced a 39-foot tsunami surge in 1934. The Sendal surge in Japan may have reached 46 feet in height.

The Cascadia subduction zone off the coast of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California is the region most likely to experience an earthquake equivalent to one that hit eastern Japan in March. In January 1700, a 9.0-magnitude megathrust earthquake occurred there, sending tsunami waves that crossed the Pacific to Japan and reached as much as 26 feet above sea level onshore in the Pacific Northwest. Fortunately, the closest nuclear power plant, the Columbia Generating Station, is located 200 miles inland.

Back in 1980, during the "energy crisis," the National Research Council issued a report called Energy in Transition, 1985-2010. One of its scenarios suggested that the U. …

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