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How Would Large Earthquake Affect San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station?

Audio

Aired 3/15/11

As fears grow over the possibility of a catastrophic meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan many are now wondering what would happen to our nuclear power plant if a large earthquake struck near San Diego. We speak to Environment Reporter Ed Joyce about the safety of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

With the dangers rising at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, many are wondering what would happen to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (above) if a large earthquake struck San Diego.
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Above: With the dangers rising at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan, many are wondering what would happen to the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (above) if a large earthquake struck San Diego.

As fears grow over the possibility of a catastrophic meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan many are now wondering what would happen to our nuclear power plant if a large earthquake struck near San Diego. We speak to Environment Reporter Ed Joyce about the safety of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Guests

Ed Joyce, environment reporter and afternoon news anchor for KPBS Radio

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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.

CAVANAUGH: When Southern Californians hear about earthquake diagrammed nuclear power plants issue our concerns turn to insofar. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, coming up on These Days, as Japan struggles to maintain the integrity of nuclear power plants diagrammed by earthquake and tsunami, we'll hear how the San Onofre nuclear plant is prepared for disaster. And then we'll hear the latest on legal cases involving drug tests. Pumpkin ice cream, and CSI. Finally, classical music presented multimedia style. That's all ahead this hour on These Days. First the news.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The reports about the damage to Japan's Fukashima Daiichi nuclear plant are grim this morning. Officials say a new explosion and fire at the facility released radioactivity directly into the at sneer. As you just heard on NPR, the radioactive readings have dropped since the explosion. But officials are advising residents in the area to seal themselves inside their homes to avoid radiation exposure. As the Japanese people endure the terrible aftermath of last week's earthquake we can't help but wonder if our proximity to the San Onofre nuclear power plant would put us in a similar predicament. Joining us with more is KPBS environmental reporter, Ed Joyce. Good morning, Ed.

JOYCE: Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: So let's start off with how bad is the situation at the Fukashima Daiichi?

JOYCE: Well, the problems are they just can't seem to get enough water in to keep those rods cool, and when that doesn't happen, when the cooling distribute happen, then we have problems with the core and what's called melt down, and they're still working on that, and they're having other issues with fires, things that explode, hydrogen explodes of it's just been a nightmare for them to try to manage the situation. And it's just not something that's expected to be as bad as this, although they're doing fairly well considering the crisis at hand?

A. And there is more than one Japanese nuclear power plant that's being watched, right? Are they experiencing similar kinds of problems? All of these plants.

JOYCE: They're having some problems. Luckily, there was one of the reactors that wasn't even on line at the time, but they're having problems there as well. Again wee got the tsunami and the earthquake, and the resulting tsunami has brought this water in, things that are really just kind of at a crisis stage, and every day, there's a new wrinkle. And they're working it, and trying it the benefit they can, and began there's radioactive releases, where the people who are working at those reactors, they have to get out of there. There were stories about some who had volunteered to stay. So it's really a tough situation.

CAVANAUGH: When you talk about the radioactive releases, there was an indication that there was a radioactive -- a release of radiation from the power plant -- USS Ronald Regan was in the vicinity, of course they're based here in San Diego, all US ships have moved further away from the Japanese coast, further away from those facilities. What will do we know about the radiation that those crew members were perhaps exposed to?

JOYCE: The radiation that they were exposed to was from particulate matter. So the radiation inside the reactor, there's contamination inside that area. When they had that explosion and fire, the material released was released as particulate matter. We're not talking about radiation from the plant itself in the same context of a radiation that's spewing into the atmosphere. So this is particulate matter, so not the same danger level as say the regular radiation that's not part of the particulate matter. So this is contaminated material, it got in the air, they washed out with soap and water, it's described about as a month's worth of what you would get normally from the atmosphere from radiation. So that's not been a problem. However, I understand there was some low level radiation detected at some bases, and U.S. military was recommending personnel and families to take precautions. So again, as we've seen as this has gone on for several dies now, it's a fluid situation. It changes almost hourly. And what happens ten minutes ago, and what happens in the next hour, we can't tell. There is radiation, there's no radiation, there's something coming over the ocean, there isn't. It's just a volatile situation, you almost have to pay attention just moment to moment to see what's the next wrinkle.

CAVANAUGH: Is there a valid concern here on the west coast that if this contamination, if matter radioactive material is released into the atmosphere, that it may somehow affect us on this side of the Pacific?

JOYCE: There have been concerns about that. One confidential that KPBS health reporter Kenny Goldberg talked to yesterday said the chance was minimal. That was at the time he talked to that person yesterday. As this develops, there's concern of people are paying attention. There's been a run on, iodine, potassium apparently in Washington/Oregon State, in British Columbia, but officials caution people not to jump to conclusions. Just wait. There'll be ample notice if anything like that is coming into the atmosphere. Emergency officials in the states and certainly the U.S. government are on top of this situation. In terms of the San Onofre nuclear generating station, if an earthquake struck here, there are safety measures there, there are censors that go off, the plant shuts down. The plant is built at the time, in the 1980s, the plant was built, the best scientific evidence to withstand a quake -- they said the largest quake would be 65 to 69, they have to exceed that, so they build the plant to with stand a 7.0 magnitude quake, and that's based on the best available science at the time, and doctor Pat Abbot, we know a geologist emeritus at San Diego State University, tells us why they built that plant for those standards.

NEW SPEAKER: We cannot have a nine, we cannot have an eight. But for the Elsinore fault on shore to the east for the rose canyon newport Inglewood just off shore or some of the island faults like San Clemente island fault, a 7.0 to 7.2 is a reasonable expectation, reasonable sized earthquake to expect from those faults.

CAVANAUGH: And from what I understand the reason that we cannot have a nine as doctor pat abbot says, and we cannot have an 8.0, we cannot have and of these Meg earthquakes is because we just don't sit over any of the subduction faults that actually cause those major earthquakes. What we have are bad enough, the slip shake faults? Is that what they're called.

JOYCE: Yes, yes.

CAVANAUGH: And that's why they can only get up to perhaps the low sevens of at least this is the best geological knowledge that we have at this point.

JOYCE: That is the best geological knowledge that we have. And again, the living, breathing planet is developing. We know what we know now. We know a lot of it through hindsight. Oregon, they have those subduction plates off shore, Oregon and Washington. So there's more of a risk there in terms of tsunami. Although we have tsunami warning systems in San Diego County as well.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right I'm wondering too, because it seems from what I'm reading that the nuclear power plants in Japan were more badly damaged by the tsunami than they were actually by the earthquake. So the San Onofre, what precautions are taken there for possible tsunami?

JOYCE: They have a 30-foot sea wall that's steel reinforced. And it exceeds the standards of what would be expected for a tsunami. Which is les likely here. A little different than what they have maybe in Japan. In a different situation. We're less likely to have a tsunami. But they do have that precaution. That sea wall is there and in place. So the containment -- concrete containment structures that you see on the side of I-5 When You Drive by the plant that also are wallet to -- steel reinforced, very thick concrete to contain anything that could possibly happen.

CAVANAUGH: I've also heard that tsunamis aren't generated by earthquakes usually that are less than 7.5. Is that also --

JOYCE: That's what doctor Pat abbot as said, that generally speaking it's the larger earthquakes that create the tsunamis. So people aren't too concerned about the quakes that are less than seven magnitude, in terms of a tsunami event.

CAVANAUGH: How does the San Onofre plant actually compare to the Fukashima Daiichi nuclear plant that's been having problems in Japan? The actual construction of the plant.

DEFENDANT: They're two different types of plants issue essentially. They use a pressurized water reactor in San Onofre, in Japan, these plants, they boil water directly off the core. And we have this explained to us by a San Diego state university professor, Murray Jennox.

NEW SPEAKER: I do believe the San Onofre facility is it a more -- is a saver design. We're a pressurized water reactor instead of a billing water reactor. The difference is that the pressurized water reactor doesn't boil water directly off the core like the one in Japan does. Because we don't do that, it's easier for us to keep water on our core.

CAVANAUGH: I so. So on the core of the reactor. So it's really kind of a different kind of design than the one they're dealing with at Fukashima Daiichi. And the Fukashima one is an older type of design isn't it?

JOYCE: It's a different type of describe. And the way it's -- everything is structured at San Onofre, there's a lot of closed loops, as was explained to me by doctor Jennox, vis-a-vis the hydrogen, you're hearing these releases and these issues with the plant in Japan. They have a closed circuit, kind of recycled system set up at San Onofre. So they have a whole series of failsafe measure that they go through. They also practice and drill regularly. He also mentioned there's a nuclear regulatory commission inspector on sight at that plant all the time. They don't just come and again and inspect. So they're definitely keeping them on their tows and they just recently upgraded at San Onofre and replaced some key parts to the plant.

CAVANAUGH: And we have a caller on the line. Steve is calling us. He's calling us from the I-five issue. Good morning, Steve, and welcome to These Days. Of.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you. I have a comment, and then a question. My comment is just to follow on the suspected earthquake risk off the west coast here. We don't have a subduction zone like there is if you go to Japan. Subduction fault earthquakes are generally a lot stronger or potentially a lot stronger. The question is goes back to the elevation of the San Onofre plant above sea level. I'm just curious what the elevation what the chance of any tsunami in modern history would have reached that elevation.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. Thank you, Steve.

JOYCE: Okay. Well, I can tell you that the tsunami that affected Japan was roughly 23 feet, the sea wall that they have build at San Onofre nuclear plant generation is 30 feed. So I don't know [CHECK] likely tsunami risk, we certainly have at this time at least a 30 feet sea wall exceeds what happened in Japan.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Getting back to Japan, because from what you've been telling you, the risk we run for a mega earthquake and a tsunami and really not that great according to the best knowledge that we have at this time. So let's go back to Japan for a moment. There was a press conference yesterday that many people -- there was shouting and turmoil at this press conference. Are there concerns that nuclear officials in Japan are not telling the whole truth about what's going on there?

JOYCE: That's always -- there's always that concern. As there is in this country, with any kind of event, when you're getting the straight story. And we know that the message is massaged. It's massaged by all countries at any given time for any particular issue. So they're kind of releasing information in a very cautious way. There's been suspicions in Japan in the past about whether the government's more forthcoming with things, as people have been in this country, and as we know through history, rightfully so.

CAVANAUGH: Now, when you said a little while ago that the people on U.S. bases have been urged to take precautions, do we know what kinds of precautions that they have been urged to take? Is it one of these things also of staying in doors and perhaps sealing yourself up a bit? I saw that in the news, seal themselves inside their homes of that's kind of -- I don't even know what that means, really. Duct tape?

JOYCE: Yeah, I don't know to the best of thirds requirement abilities. I mean, you can only seal yourself within a certain reason. Maybe they're asking them to modify their outdoor act firsts. This again was low level radiation that was detected at some of the bases at Kanagawa in Japan. And of course the USS Regan and all those ships in the relief effort, they're doings a phenomenal job, they're paying attention, they're monitoring the situation. They moved out, away from that area, they kind of moved back in today. As events change and as they monitor that air, if there's any kind of danger of actual radiation beyond the contaminants, we're still finding out about this has it happens of we're not really as much information as we would like. But the Navy is very good about moving those people out of harm's way. I had information this morning that the carrier group, Regan, they flew 29 sorties today, they delivered 17 tons of food, water and blankets, and so far they've delivered 25 tons to date to Japan. So they're putting themselves a bit in harm's way to an extent.

CAVANAUGH: Do we have any idea, ed, about what might happen next? Has anybody given any kind of a time frame? Does it look up? Are things hooking up about their ability to maintain the cool down of these rods that may cause a problem? Any update at all about that?

JOYCE: Well, I hate to use the expression yin and yang, but it seems like for every step forward, there's a couple steps back, and they get something under control, then something else happens, then there's cooling -- it's effect itch, there's some radioactivity go going on, some radiation releases, and then they control that. Their plants are also, I should say, designed -- they do vent radiation as part of the design structure there. Not accident -- know, not harmful in the sense that it would affect the health of nearby residents, but they're designed to vent a little bit. So that's kind of the way those plants work. So again, I hate to go back to the cliche, but it is a developing fluid situation as it has been for days, you wake up in the morning, you go to sleep at night, there's some new wrinkle almost hourly.

CAVANAUGH: And what are we learning if anything from what's going on in Japan.

JOYCE: I think there's certainly a heightened awareness of nuclear power plants in this country. Certainly any time there's an instance like this, as there was with three-mile island back in 79, there's an extreme focus on what's in my backyard, what's going on in this country, Germany today, they temporarily have shut down seven of those plants, they're going through a review. So there's a lot of lessons learned, and there'll be more to come I'm sure in the days and months and years to come.

CAVANAUGH: Ed, thank you so much.

JOYCE: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: KPBS environment reporter Ed Joyce. If you would like to comment, please go on-line, KPBS.org/These Days. Coming up, a real up indicate with attorney Dan Eaton. That's as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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