Photo: emdot Flickr, CC 2.0
A common line I've been hearing in response to Japan's ongoing nuclear crisis goes something like this: "Well, this would never happen here -- our nuclear plants are designed to shut down in the event of a quake or some other disruption." Of course, the Fukushima I plant was designed to shut down too, but the tsunami knocked out the secondary power required to kick the emergency system into motion. And while I understand the sentiment, which I suppose is a defense mechanism -- few things scare people like the prospect of a nearby nuclear crisis -- the truth is, a disaster could indeed happen here. For instance, a recent report has revealed that the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which sits just miles away from the notoriously active San Andreas fault -- and a mere half-mile from another recently discovered fault -- operated for a year and half with its emergency systems disabled. The LA Times reports that:
The reactor at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo operated for a year and a half with some emergency systems disabled, according to a 2010 safety review by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.And as you can see, San Luis Obispo sits pretty close to the San Andreas Fault line:
The incident was one of 14 "near-misses" the NRC uncovered in its inspections of nuclear power plants where problems had been occurring. An analysis by the group Union of Concerned Scientists concluded that "many of these significant events occurred because reactor owners, and often the NRC, tolerated known safety problems."
This is not to say that the chances of an earthquake striking near the plant while its emergency systems are down are terribly likely -- but few disasters seem likely before they occur. Cases like this simply illustrate that there are very good reasons that nuclear power plants already in operation must be strictly and carefully regulated at all times -- and that it would be foolish to write off entirely the possibility that a crisis like the one in Japan could occur here, too.
For a great, in-depth survey of nuclear plants and their proximity to fault lines across the US, see Jerry James Stone's great post on the subject.
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More on the Japan Nuclear Crisis
Japan's Nuclear Crisis, One Week Later
Nuclear Reactors in Earthquake Zones in the U.S. [Map]