What We Need to Learn from the Japanese Earthquake and U.S. Nuclear Power Plants

NOTE: 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.
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.

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.

This post appeared on Monday March 14, 2011 on Science Progress, a project of the Center for American Progress.

Climate Progress with data from USGS
By Science Progress 


LMj Sunshine

Thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you.

Jess No Fwd Plz K.
Jessica K.2 years ago

My big problem is with the waste. No one has explained to me how we will manage not to create a disaster just as bad as global warming, except in the ground when it comes to that. Thanks.

Janine Hofmann
Janine H.5 years ago

Tscernobyl, Fukushima,...

What comes next? How often should something terrible happens, until "we" recognize our stupidness and our blasphemy, our violence to this world, the only one we have to live? Too much incidents were said, if they were mentioned, that they were nothing. Who wants to have the responsiblity for handicaped children? That is a very important question, but would nuclear fans answer? Would they really want it? Don't they have children? Do they really think, if they have children, all is fine, and that bad things only happens to other people, in other places? How ignorant.

Only when the last tree has been cut down; Only when the last river has been poisoned; Only when the last fish has been caught; Only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.
(Native American proverb)

Camila K.
Kamila A.5 years ago

The minds that created this devastating result should have created geothermal pumps and crystal solar collecting methods that work better, and tidal generators and all kinds of "free" energy sources to use than nuclear. They didn't learn from their own nuclear devastation from WWII? OMG, what were they thinking?

Ruth R.
Ruth R.5 years ago

Thank You. Shared, emailed myself.

Gene Sengstake
Gene Sengstake5 years ago

What we don't need to learn - that we should have already known - is that nuclear energy is not the energy of our future. But if pursued - we may find it to be the energy of our demise - - -

Adam K.
Douglas K.5 years ago

No question it is an ecological catastrophe. The evidence is conflicting as to health consequences. Some studies show no difference between people and animals living in elevated background radiation zones. Some studies show very little increase in deaths in Chernobyl, claiming little loss of life, nor debility, even with those who worked at lethal levels of exposure(Horizon-Nuclear Nightmares) while others decry the tremendous loss of life (Battle of Chernobyl).