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Seismic Omen

Fukushima shockwaves hit America’s nuclear renaissance.

Fortnightly Magazine - May 2011

toward other forms of alternative energy, such as solar, wind, geothermal and biofuels, nuclear must remain on the energy resource menu in order to maintain the degree of reliability Americans have come to enjoy.

President Obama and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu are trying to bolster public acceptance of the technology, even in the Fukushima aftermath. In order to reassure the public, beginning next year, the NRC plans initially to conduct a seismic risk evaluation of 27 nuclear power plants (see Figure 2) .

The selection of reactors to be examined initially for seismic vulnerability is more interesting for the facilities omitted from the list rather than those included, specifically nuclear reactors in California, which are close to the San Andreas Fault: Diablo Canyon #1 and #2 (owned by Pacific Gas & Electric) and San Onofre #2 and #3 (Edison International).

The entire West Coast lies along a series of earthquake faults known as the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” including the well-known San Andreas fault. The Ring of Fire refers to a region in the Pacific Ocean basin subject to frequent volcanic and earthquake activity. It’s horseshoe shaped, running from Christchurch, New Zealand right through the Pacific Rim, and down the western coasts of North and South America.

In September 2010, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake occurred about 25 miles west of Christchurch, causing substantial damage. Japan is located on the Ring of Fire, as are Washington State, Oregon and California. About 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes—and 80 percent of the largest—occur along the Ring of Fire.

However, the West Coast is not America’s only seismically active region, and several new reactor projects are located near geologic faults in the eastern half of the country (see Figure 3) . Although these might not be susceptible to tsunami risks, their proximity to fault lines is raising new questions about earthquake risks.

The Fukushima-Daiichi crisis provides a painful reminder of just how unpredictable earthquakes are and how controversial nuclear power remains. In the days just after the March 11 earthquake, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) called on the NRC to review the safety of all nuclear reactors either planned or currently in operation. Markey commented that “the U.S. should not be offering (loan) guarantees. Such backing for new nuclear plants is just like a toxic asset… [T]he U.S. needs a seismic shift in our approach to nuclear reactor safety.”

Markey has a long history of taking an anti-nuclear position, but the Fukushima political fallout isn’t limited to just him. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo immediately called for a shutdown of the Indian Point plant north of New York City. The Sierra Club, a long-standing adversary of nuclear power, launched its objection to the proposed Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant in Maryland. Entergy, which is suing the State of Vermont over last year’s decision to deny a license extension for the Vermont Yankee plant, now faces questions about the safety of the plant’s design—the same GE Mark 1 boiling water reactor technology as that at Fukushima-Daiichi. And more broadly, anti-nuclear organizations like Greenpeace are saying the