Lessons from Japan's Nuclear Crisis: Can it Happen Here?

As tragedy unfolds in Japan, as the specter of nuclear disaster intensifies in the wake of the 9.0 magnitude Sendai earthquake, there is little comfort in hearing the glib assurances from nuclear industry representatives and government officials in the United States that it can’t happen here.  Our plants are better designed, they say, our system of government oversight is stricter, and a quake of that magnitude won’t happen along our California coast.  And if you believe that, I have a fail-safe blow-out preventer from the Gulf of Mexico I want to sell you. 

Take, for example, this morning’s comments on MSNBC (see March 15, 2011 clip Is U.S. prepared for Japan-like event?) from Mike Dayton, Acting Secretary of California Emergency Management.  According to Mr. Dayton, referring to the 9.0 magnitude quake in Japan, “we will not see an earthquake of that severity.” 

Never mind that that is exactly what the Japanese thought before last week’s quake proved them wrong.

Or this, also from Mr. Dayton, referring to the projected earthquake intensity that the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre reactors, both located on our California coast, were designed to withstand:   “It’s important to know that . . . the magnitude that [the earthquakes] were projected was below what those facilities were designed to withstand.  So they’ve gone above and beyond in California on what the expected quake is.”

Never mind that that is exactly what the Japanese thought before last week’s quake proved them wrong.  The design basis earthquake for the Fukushima reactors was Magnitude 7.9 – exponentially less powerful than the 9.0 Magnitude Sendai quake.

It is worth mentioning also that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission doesn’t even require emergency response planning for the situation now unfolding in Japan – that is, a radiological accident caused by an earthquake.  In 1986, when this very concern was raised by the San Luis Obispo Mothers for Peace in connection with licensing of Diablo Canyon, they were told by the NRC that such an occurrence was of such low probability that it needn’t – indeed, it couldn’t – be considered.  And this inexplicable result was subsequently upheld in a 5-4 decision of the federal court of appeals in Washington, D.C.

As Japan struggles to contain four out-of-control reactors at Fukushima in the wake of last week’s Sendai earthquake, government officials like Mr. Dayton and industry representatives eager to assure us that it can’t happen here should save their breath.