Nuclear Power, Caught in an Earthquake

Jul 17, 2007 4:33pm

The earthquakes in Japan Monday were far away, but they sent shivers down more than a few spines here in the U.S.  Among other things, there was the picture (click to enlarge) of the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, with smoke coming from a burning transformer.  The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant, with its seven reactors, is a massive operation–the world’s largest in terms of power generated.  First reports were that it was fine, even though it was very close to the epicenter of the earthquake, 140 miles northwest of Tokyo. A day later, there were a few apologies from Tokyo Electric Power Co.  It turned out that about a hundred stacked barrels of low-level nuclear waste had been toppled at the plant, some of them losing their lids.  Small amounts of cobalt-60 and chromium-51, both radioactive, had been released into the air from an exhaust stack. "They raised the alert too late," said Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, as quoted by AP.  "I have sent stern instructions that such alerts must be raised seriously and swiftly."  There’s more HERE. All of which raised the question around here of how much Americans need to be concerned about our own nuclear plants.  The U.S. has 104 working reactors; Japan, second in the world, has 55.  The answers we got depended on where we asked.  At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, we were told, "This is a big not-to-worry." I also spoke with Matthew Bunn at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; he works in their Program on Science, Technology & Public Policy.  "The failure of the utility to report it is bigger than the minor amount of radioactivity that was released," he said.  "I won’t claim every plant in the U.S. is perfect, but there’s been a repeated pattern in Japan of covering up problems." Then I wound up somewhat closer to the action–calling David Weisman of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility in San Luis Obispo, Calif., right up the road from the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant on California’s coast.  To him, the sight of a burning transformer was no small matter. "If the power is down, you lose the cooling pumps.  Then you’re in a very critical situation. "In the San Francisco Earthquake" of 1906, he said, "the damage everyone remembers is from the fire after the earthquake, not the earthquake itself."  Weisman pointed to a proposal by State Assemblyman Chuck DeVore that would end California’s decades-long moratorium on new nuclear plants, partly on the grounds that they do not generate greenhouse gases.  See more at Mr. DeVore’s BLOG; scroll down to his May 5 post.  Has Japan’s earthquake sent us a wakeup call?  Thoughts welcome.
Note, added Wednesday:  Assemblyman DeVore got in touch with us, and offered a link where there’s more information on his proposal to allow more nuclear-plant construction in California.  It’s And a quick thanks to Colm Saunders for catching an error–France does have more reactors than Japan–the newest list I could find shows 59 in operation–but my understanding is that Japan is second to the U.S. in terms of energy generated by nuclear plants.  I left out the key phrase; my apologies.

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