Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

Nuclear Safety and Earthquake Prediction After Fukushima

March 12, 2012 1:17 p.m.

Guests: Ellen, Vancho, Nuclear Energy Project manager, Union of Concerned Scientists

Pat Abbott, professor emeritus of geology, San Diego State University

Related Story: U.S. Nuclear Safety One Year After Fukushima


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

Read Transcript

CAVANAUGH: On the first anniversary of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami this weekend, dozens of protestors marched near the San Onofre nuclear power plant, expressed their concerns about safety, and whether regulators have done enough to guard against a disaster here. San Onofre remains offline as experts evaluate cracks in steam generator tubes that caused a very small release of radiation in January. Joining me are my guests, Ellen Vancho is nuclear energy and climate change project manager with the union of concerned scientists. Welcome to the program. Upon

VANCHO: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Pat Abbott joins us, professor emeritus of geology from SDSU. Welcome back.

ABBOTT: It's good to be back.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Ellen, a recent report by the union of concerned scientists on the U.S. nuclear industry was complimentary about the initial response, but also had some recommendations about what the NRC task force could do better. And I want to go to the No.†1 recommendation about beyond design based accidents, and why the union of concerned scientists feels that's so important.

VANCHO: Well, I think the first thing, it's important for your listeners to understand that Fukushima, and that disaster resulted from a beyond design based accident. And what I mean by that is that the plant was very well-positioned to with stand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake that shook the station and the surrounding country. So the plant's backup systems went into place, and the backup systems are necessary to keep the reactor core cool when the plant has to go offline. And so their systems, and there was a series of redundant backup systems, batteries, all the electronics in place to do that the. But the beyond design base part occurred when a 50-foot tsunami hit the plant, and they only built a 20-foot tsunami wall.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. And I I think one of the criticisms is that the regulatory commission doesn't have a unified series of recommendations when it comes to what plants are supposed to do if things like that happen.

VANCHO: Well, that's correct, and that was the first recommendation of the commission when is they developed recommendations quickly after the accident. They had about 60 or 90 days to come up with recommendations, and that was their first one. Of the problem is when the NRC reviewed the recommendations and reordered them in a list of priority, they ended up putting that one at the end of the list.

CAVANAUGH: Now, are the union of concerned scientists made its own recommendations. They include the idea of expanding evacuation zones, expanding the distribution of potassium iodide. All that sounds rather frightening. Isn't it -- doesn't that conflict in a way with the NRC's stance that nuclear power is safe?

VANCHO: Well -- I don't know how to say whether it conflicts with it or not. But what we were concerned about is we saw in Fukushima, when the actual emergency happened, the nuclear regulatory commission didn't tell people within 10†miles of that plant, Americans I should say, within 10†miles of that plant to evacuate. They said that Americans within 50†miles of that plant should evacuate. That was based on an expectation of a much larger release of radiation, and a much more catastrophic event than actually occurred. But they acted on the safe sides because the information comes out of Japan was not sufficiently reliable for them to be sure that they actually knew how bad the accident would be. But we believe in the United States, every plant in the country should be vaulted on its own bases, not only in terms of seismic risk, but in terms of the population surrounding it, for how large the evacuation should be, and what kind of emergency response procedures need to be put in place to insure that if the accident or natural disaster of any kind like that happened, you could actually safely and quickly evacuate the surrounding populations. The potassium iodide distribution is related to that. If you believe your zonal risk is bigger than 10†miles. You should be planning to distribute potassium iodide on a broader basis as well.

CAVANAUGH: What's happened to those recommendations?

VANCHO: Well, they were just sort of put on the backburner. They're not in the first or even second tier. They were initially put into the mix with the recommendations, but the review has moved our recommendations to the end, and moved the union design event coordination as well.

CAVANAUGH: Now, pat abbot, would you remind us about whether the conditions that produced that quake and tsunami in Japan are anything like what could happen here in Southern California?

ABBOTT: Well, basically this is what we call the subduction, we're taking that tens of miles thick ocean floor plate, and pulling it underneath the continent. Now, in Southern California, that's not what's happening. We have our famous San Andreas fault, but we would not expect that to exceed a magnitude 8.0, and it could not come close to the 9.0 that they experienced in Japan.

CAVANAUGH: I understand that that 9.0 quake off the coast of Japan wasn't anticipated in seismic hazard maps. What are seismic hazard maps?

ABBOTT: You're largely looking at the historic record, and also the prehistoric record. We have a lot of ability to dig trenches and look at off-set rock layers, and use radio carbon dating to try to build up prehistoric earthquake records. And from what we saw about the historic and prehistoric earthquakes, then we develop zoning and building codes that try to be in tune with what's expected or what's happened in an area to minimize damage and deaths.

CAVANAUGH: So there have been, including what happened in Japan, haven't there been several surprises recently for geologists of bigger quakes than anticipated in the Indian Ocean and China?

ABBOTT: It kind of takes my breath away, when I hear how many geologists are surprised by it. Frank he, the only surprise is the date at which it occurred, the magnitude here, the 9.2 in 2004, both of those were so absolutely predictable or expected, it takes my breath away that there are professionals who find that difficult. And if you don't mind my saying so, I had done a tsunami special early in 2004, and I suggested that one of the places that's most obvious for a 9.0 earthquake was off of Indonesia. Of so it's not a surprise. It's subduction. The subduction zones of the world are the places where we generate those magnitude nine earthquake, it's not like some subduction zones generate them and some don't. They all do. It's just that we get caught up in human time, I think, versus geologic time.


ABBOTT: The answer Japanese earthquake a year ago, they had basically that same event as close as we can measure it, occurred in the year 869. A little over 1000100 years ago. Zto a geologist is nothing, that's a snap of the fingers. But I'm afraid that the Japanese when they were doing their seismic assessments only went back 500 years or so, as if that was sufficient time. And it's simply not. The bigger the event in general, the longer the time interval between conferences.

CAVANAUGH: Now, pat, there's a new earthquake study for the plant around San Onofre. It's on hold because there's flap over who's going to pay for it. But what would a new earthquake study around San Onofre concentrate on?

ABBOTT: Well, it's basically a better understanding of the faults and what is the largest magnitude earthquake one could reasonably expect. And of course, for some of these facilities like nuclear power plants that are, you know, beyond those of ordinary structures. You want to have those extra factors of safety. The beyond design systems. And it's just time to take another look at it, as we -- the more we look at faults and earthquake records of the world, the more we recognize that they can be bigger than we expect and more frequent than are commonly expected. And we want to adjust designs to be prepared for those things. A lot of these are preventable disasters. And building is that extra understanding is so much the better.

CAVANAUGH: Ellen, of the concerned scientists, one lesson learned from Fukushima is that emergency equipment stored at nuclear power plants can itself be destroyed in a disaster. It's exactly what happened to a lot of that emergency equipment when the tsunami hit. What has the nuclear industry done to insure against that?

VANCHO: Well, right now, if it's -- again, if you draw a distinction between design basis threats and non-design basis threats, if the equipment is installed to deal with a design basis threats, it's designed to be harder against what those designs are. But if it's equipment installed to deal with beyond design bases threats, then it doesn't require to be hardened. So our concern with the industry is proposal that it implement what it calls a flex program to store and locate more than 300†pieces of emergency backup equipment around the country, whether it's at plants or centralized storage areas. There's no guarantee if it's not sufficiently hardened that if a disaster occurs that that equipment would be available for use. That doesn't mean it will be destroyed, we just don't know, and we don't know if the NRC will later make rules that require such hardening, and maybe turn this -- maybe this new equipment worthless to the industry.

CAVANAUGH: What's the union of countries scientists' bottom line? How good a job is the industry doing with safety?

VANCHO: There are good and bad players in any business. And I absolutely believe this nuclear industry does strive for excellence and does strive to avoid accidents at all costs. But as some of our analysis reports have shown, not only does the industry continue to make -- continue to make mistakes and fail to find themselves, and we know this because the nuclear regulatory commission does inspections and turns up places where the industry has failed to properly plan for design -- their systems to prevent an accident. And luckily, that has not resulted in a problem in this country of significant impact at least not since through 3-mile island.

CAVANAUGH: And Pat, as San Onofre and other nuclear facilities that are in California we lack at their earthquake maps, maybe do another study map, do we have better equipment now to be able to find faults that we didn't -- that we weren't able to find before?

ABBOTT: Yeah, a lot of it is due to better imaging, better ways of measuring it, and understanding these things. And a lot of it is just from doing more detailed work. For example, a lot of these faults off-shore from San Onofre are there on the sea floor. And we have a much greater ability now to image and understand what is going on on the sea floor, and it's just this constant growth of knowledge. We keep understanding things better and better with time. And that means we might want also to increase the factors of safety for San Onofre or Diablo canyon. It's these things that need to be updated with the times. We don't want to be caught short, and prepare for something that we know should be better. The Japanese one again, nobody has better records of historic earthquakes and tsunami, yet they didn't even go far enough back through their catalog to see the tsunami equipment across the plain, equivalent to what happened last year. But the more we understand these thing, we need to expand the time span over which we build and design.

CAVANAUGH: I have to end it here. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

VANCHO: Thank you.

ABBOTT: My pleasure.