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Seismic Activity and U.S. Nuclear Facilities

What We Need to Learn from the Japanese Earthquake

Nukes and Earthquakes SOURCE: Science Progress, click here for high res version. The Map above depicts the locations of U.S. nuclear power facilities in gray, and locations of seismic activity in yellow. Data from the USGS and the International Nuclear Safety Center.
Climate Change Could Create New Risks to U.S. Nuclear Reactor Safety

Also see our map and article on operating nuclear reactors and flood risks.

Following the devastation of last week’s 9.0 scale earthquake and tsunami, Japanese citizens face new realities and threats stemming from damage to nuclear power plant facilities. The quake damaged five nuclear reactors, three of which are facing potential meltdowns due to coolant loss. The human and environmental cost of such an event could be cataclysmic.

This catastrophe in Japan should serve as a lesson to the United States as well as Japan, argued Joe Romm, editor of Climate Progress, and CAPAF policy analyst Richard Caperton in this CNN article today.

The featured map illustrates just how vulnerable we could be: many of the United States’s 104 nuclear facilities are located near areas of seismic activity. We need to make sure that we are taking steps to secure our aging nuclear infrastructure against earthquakes and other environmental disasters and that the risks of potential accidents are fairly bone not just by tax payers, but by those who profit from producing nuclear power. Specifically, Romm and Caperton make four suggestions to policymakers moving forward:

  • Review the ability of every reactor to deal with threats to its safety. The “Japan Syndrome” — a major disaster causing loss of coolant that threatens a meltdown — means we must make sure that reactors in coastal or seismic areas can withstand any disaster. Many disasters can imperil reactors. For example, severe floods are becoming more common. As FEMA head Craig Fugate said in December after all the record-smashing deluges around the globe, “The term ’100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year.” Every reactor that is in a 500-year flood plain should demonstrate that it can handle the challenge.
  • Congress must not cut funding for NOAA’s tsunami warning service. House Republicans have proposed cutting funding to NOAA — the agency directly responsible for tsunami monitoring and warning — restricting the government’s ability to respond. America has a number of reactors that could be affected by a tsunami, such as the Diablo Canyon Power Plant in California. Many more are at risk from a major earthquake.
  • The permitting process must not be further weakened. Today, new reactors must undergo a multiyear review process before they are given a “Combined Operating License”. This is already an accelerated permitting process — in which multiple reviews are conducted simultaneously. It mustn’t be sped up yet again.
  • The Department of Energy must continue to run the nuclear loan guarantee program to protect taxpayers and must continue to accurately charge the nuclear industry for the risk it incurs by guaranteeing these projects. To receive a loan guarantee, a builder has to pay a fee to compensate taxpayers for taking on significant risk. If DOE collects too little money, taxpayers bear too much risk. The nuclear industry has claimed that these fees are too high, despite evidence to the contrary. Congress must not interfere with DOE’s critical role in taxpayer protection.

Update: The magnitude of the quake was recently revised upwards by the U.S. Geological Survey to a 9.0. The change has been made in the text.

Update: Since publishing this feature, another explosion at Japans Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Facility has caused further damage, resulting in the evacuation of rescue workers and increased risk of a catastrophic meltdown. The New York Times has the story.

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