It will probably be a while before we know how bad the Japanese nuclear disaster really is, and even longer before we know how much the fallout will affect people in the U.S. According to the experts, the effects in California should be negligible.
Maybe they are right. After all, the affects of Chernobyl were small beyond 1,500 miles, and Japan is several thousand miles away from California. However, as a father of a three-year old, I am very concerned. Children in Scandinavia did have an elevated risk of birth defects and developmental damage as a result of Chernobyl and the Japanese disaster will certainly increase background radiation levels. But what concerns me much more than this and what should really concern Americans is not the fallout from Japan, but the risks of our own nuclear industry, which has had dozens of near crises and is equally susceptible to severe earthquake damage.
The California plants in San Onofre and Diablo Canyon were built to withstand earthquakes of 7.0 and 7.5, respectively, according to SFGate. But California is known to have had quakes in excess of 8.0. Furthermore, both nuclear plants are on the coast, making them susceptible to tsunami damage. According to the Huffington Post, Diablo Canyon is less than 1 mile from an offshore earthquake fault. The Cascadian subduction zone is thought to be able to generate quakes in the 9.0 range, along with cataclysmic tsunamis. It did, in fact, cause a tsunami that devastated what is now Humboldt County in 1700. Furthermore, the San Onofre plant sits less than 100 miles from San Diego and Los Angeles, with a total population of well of 10 million in the near vicinity. Then there is the additional threat of the rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms accompanying climate change.
It is not just California that is at risk. Regulators have known for six years that the nuclear plants in the central and eastern U.S. are at far greater earthquake risk than previously assumed. The New Madrid fault in Missouri, for example, has had quakes in the 19th century that are thought to have surpassed 8.0 on the Richter scale. In 1986, a quake in Cleveland damaged the Perry Nuclear Power Plant, according to a report in Common Dreams. Also, a recently discovered fault runs beneath the Indian Point plant less than 50 miles from New York City, making it arguably the most dangerous nuclear power plant in the country.
Compounding the earthquake risk is years of lax regulation and maintenance. Democracy Now reported that the backup diesel generators at the Fermi 2 reactor in Michigan were inoperable for 20 years. Had there been a disaster in that plant, there would have been no backup energy and potential disaster for Toledo and Windsor. Likewise, the Palisades reactor in Michigan has been storing radioactive waste in silos along Lake Michigan since 1993, in violation of NRC regulations, putting at risk the drinking water of millions of people. There are also dozens of nuclear power plants in operation in the U.S. with obsolete containment systems that could fail in an accident. In 1985, the NRC warned of this risk, saying plants like Dresden, in Illinois, or Vermont Yankee, had a 90% chance of failure in a severe accident.
Compounding the risk even further still are the woefully inadequate and ill-conceived general disaster-preparedness plans in the U.S. For example, there are only evacuation plans for 10 miles around U.S. plants, yet the U.S. is insisting on evacuating U.S. citizens within 50 miles of the Japanese plants. Even this could be inadequate. A one-hundred square mile zone around Chernobyl is now uninhabitable it is so radioactive. Should one of the U.S. plants go level 6 or level 7, particularly near a densely populated region such as Indian Point or San Onofre, it might be impossible to quickly evacuate everyone within 50 miles, let alone 100. Also, in light of the pathetic U.S. response to hurricane Katrina, it is hard to believe that the government is in any shape to deal with a disaster of the magnitude of the one unfolding in Japan.
Hopefully the current hysteria around nukes, whether misplaced or well-founded, will reinvigorate the anti-nuclear movement and inspire mass protests like we saw in the 1980s and we are currently seeing in Europe. Ralph Nader seems to think the move to increase nuclear power in the U.S. is temporarily dead in the water. However, Obama has asserted that the Japanese disaster will have no effect on U.S. plans to increase its nuclear power plants. He made true on similar threats in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, okaying deepwater oil exploration less than a year after, so there is no reason to think he won’t continue to push nukes, too, unless the anti-nuclear movement grows rapidly in size and militancy.