California nuclear power plants remain confident despite crisis in Japan

California’s two coastal nuclear power plants are built to withstand ground accelerations worse than those that ravaged Japan.  But questions remain about how they would stand up to the unlikely tsunami.

Related News: State’s Health Dept. says radiation from Japan does not pose threat to Californians

Joshua Adam Hicks contributed to this report.

The Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Station is the closest active nuclear site to the Bay Area (Photo: Flickr)

California’s two active nuclear power plants sit adjacent to the Pacific coast, giving rise to safety concerns in light of this week’s earthquake and subsequent tsunami that left one of Japan’s nuclear facilities on the brink of a meltdown.

California’s coastal plants, San Onofre, in San Diego County, and Diablo Canyon, in San Luis Obispo County, are built to withstand ground accelerations worse than those that ravaged Japan.  But questions remain about how they would stand up to a tsunami.

“The Japanese Fukushima site had a double hit — an earthquake larger than had been anticipated and a tsunami larger than had been anticipated,” said Burton Richter, a Nobel Laureate in physics and a professor at Stanford University.

“The earthquake was not the problem,” he added. “The tsunami was. In Japan, the earthquake engineering was superb, but the tsunami protection was not adequate. Their sea wall was not high enough to protect the site from flooding, and it was the flooding that knocked out the emergency core cooling system.”

Still, Richter said California residents have no reason to be concerned. “The reactors here are different, and their location differs too.”

The two California plants are located several hundred miles south of the Bay Area. The map below gives the approximate locations of California’s major fault lines. (Story Continues Below)

View Nuclear Power in California with Major Fault Lines in a larger map

The 26-year-old Diablo Canyon nuclear plant sits on a bluff 85 feet above sea level, while the 42-year-old San Onofre facility is located 50 feet above sea level, with a 30-foot tsunami wall for added protection.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that all nuclear facilities be able to withstand the most severe natural phenomena historically reported in their regions.

The nuclear power plant at San Onofre is located adjacent to the beach. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The San Onofre facility, for instance, is built to survive a ground acceleration of up to 0.67 meters-per-second-squared, otherwise known as g-force. Experts estimate that the earthquake in Japan caused a ground acceleration somewhere between 0.25 and 0.35 meters-per-second-squared, in comparison.

Maps of California’s geology show that it differs from Japan’s. In California, few faults exist offshore, which lowers the risk of a catastrophic wave the size of the one that hit the Japanese coast.

Nuclear energy proponents say nuclear facilities provide one of the cleanest forms of energy available, but the risk of catastrophe remains high, and scientists are yet to develop succinct protocols for safe disposal of waste.

Critics of nuclear power remain skeptical that the energy plants are as safe as their operators claim.

“In our state, our vulnerability increases as we learn of more and more new fault zones off our coast,” said Rochelle Becker, executive director of the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.

Becker emphasizes that Diablo Canyon is located within about 3 miles of four active faults, while San Onofre sits in an area where tsunamis and coastal erosion could be a concern.

Pacific Gas and Electric, which operates the Diablo Canyon facility, said that its tsunami wall is robust; but Japanese authorities made similar claims before the wall that protects the Fukushima Daiichi plant fell.

Still, Richter claims that nuclear power plants are a relatively safe means of generating electricity.

“All energy systems are dangerous, and nuclear power is one of the least dangerous,” he said. “People are more frightened of a single large event than they are of a series of small events that lead to more death and destruction.”

Relatively few tsunami have hit the American West Coast (Credit: International Oceanographic Commission)
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16 Comments

  1. says: notgullible

    “Nuclear energy proponents say nuclear facilities provide one of the cleanest forms of energy available”—if you ignore the massive, unsolvable, expensive waste problem, the history of accidents, the history of industry and government collusion, and the vast cost. Do you really expect these proponents to say “Whoops! We’re crazy and stupid! And liars to boot!”

    Burton Richter, despite his credentials, seems to be suffering from a massive delusional problem when he utters “All energy systems are dangerous, and nuclear power is one of the least dangerous.” One of the least dangerous? Are you completely daft? Yeah, and wind and solar are sooooo dangerous. Hey, strip nuclear, coal, gas and oil of their subsidies and invest that money in wind and solar and watch what happens. But that would require a government that’s not bought and paid for by the very industries the government is supposed to regulate. I mean, was supposed to regulate, before government and industry became Siamese twins. When did that start? Reagan? Help me out here….

  2. says: Famout Last Words: It can't happen here

    Following the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Indonesia and Thailand, coastal nuke plants everywhere should have been refitted to withstand comparable or worse events. The inadequate or neglected tests of backup-cooling systems would still be a persistant problem, however, since the operators would object to the costs and “red tape.” External contractors would be used to avoid legal liabilities, and those contractors would have to charge low to win the bids, and then face demands to “go gentle” or “be business friendly” and waive or fudge examinations, so that noncompliant plants not be shut down.

    The problem with nuke plants, even if they don’t explode like Chernobyl, is that a “controled meltdown,” with the subsequent need to entomb the radioactive materials, entails a huge cost, which may dwarf the comparative costs of electricity generated by natural gas or coal.

    Wind energy may be intermittent or cost more per unit in the short run, but a windmill will never blow, contaminate a continent, up or make a whole territory uninhabitable. Energy generated on windy days could also be used to fill reservoirs to power hydro generators during periods of calm.

  3. says: Jan

    >“All energy systems are dangerous, and nuclear power is one of the least dangerous,” he said. “People are more frightened of a single large event than they are of a series of small events that lead to more death and destruction.”

    That’s ridiculous. In CA, we should all have solar panels on our house roofs. For the cost of one nuclear power plant, that could be done. Let the state own and maintain them. Nuclear power will always rely on human judgement, which as we know, is flawed.

  4. Richter claims that California residents should not be concerned about nuclear power are false. Leaving aside the real costs issue of nuclear power, nuclear power plants and their spent fuel are safety risks that will be around longer than any human nation has existed.

    Consider the very slight possibility of 2 ton meteor impact on a nuclear power plant vs a conventional power plant. As absurdly small of a probability as this is, examine the risk differential. A conventional plant will have clean up, probably taking less than a year. The area around the nuclear power plant impact will be uninhabitable for decades.

    Leaving behind absurdly small risks consider the certainty of STUX-warfare. Now that the US and Israel have built the template of the first computer munition and destroyed a significant portion of an Iranian nuclear facility, all facilities are open game without the need to declare war. The average civilian utility plant is far less secure than the secret Iranian facility, yet the operators were unaware of the destruction being wrought due to the sophistication of STUX.

    Again, when a STUX style munition strikes a conventional power plant, we face a year of cleanup. A STUX nuclear attack may even be worse than Fukushima Daiichi.

  5. says: Lucymarie Ruth

    Building and operation of nuclear power plants is a crime against humanity mainly because the intensely harmful radioactive wastes produced by these plants are our legacy to the Earth and the persons who survive us for tens of thousands of years. The facts about radioactivity and the duration of radioactive toxicity are available in any basic book on physics and any basic book on math that includes a formula for the calculation of half-life of radioactive materials. The sins of the fathers are being extended to more generations than ever before. If you are not deeply ashamed of leaving this legacy, you ought to be.

  6. says: GG

    I think anyone who saw those videos from Japan can see by looking at the picture above that the plant would be completely submerged by an event like that one. The water massed and travelled up and over such walls, as it did at Fukushima. If it weren’t so serious, it would be funny that they expect us to be reassured.

  7. says: Nuclear power is a huge tax burden

    Health standards will not change if you listen to the regulators (Nuclear Regulatory Comission) and the plant operators. The most effective way to make nuclear energy plants safer is to do what they did in Vermont with Act 160.

    http://vtcitizen.org/act160.shtml

    Nuclear electricity is the most expensive electricity in the world. Entitlements and tax-payer bailouts for the industry keep it afloat. The cost of managing the radioactive waste will cost taxpayers for the next 20,000 years. Would you buy a hamburger for $10,000? Nuclear electricity is the kind of electricity you use once and pay for every year until the cancer causing radiation disapates. How would you like to make house payments for the next 20,000 years. If so, just keep going along with your governments energy policies. Just do nothing.

  8. says: BeNICE

    So the plants are several hundred miles from the Bay area, and that keeps all Californians safe? We are but 40 miles from one of them. And the phrase, “It can’t happen here…” gives me so much peace, I can’t tell you. It’s like, “… that part on a Toyota NEVER fails!”

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