Lessons for the US from Fukushima

Lessons for the US from Fukushima

Jon Stewart, an expert in earthquake engineering and the vice chair of UCLA's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, traveled to Japan as a member of an expert team charged with assessing damage to structures.

UCLA experts agree that the United States must do more to plan for worst-case scenarios when it comes to nuclear power.

By Alison Hewitt for the UCLA Newsroom
Scroll down for the Newsroom's video coverage.

Although California earthquake faults are less-threatening than those in Japan, UCLA experts agree that the United States must do more to plan for worst-case scenarios when it comes to nuclear power.

UCLA experts in nuclear energy policy, earthquake engineering, public health and other fields came together April 18 for a panel discussion, “The Fukushima Meltdown – Lessons from Japan and future energy sources in California and the U.S.” Rare is not the same as impossible, the panelists emphasized, and California’s style of fault lines could produce up to an 8.5 quake along the San Andreas or a mid-seven along faults nearer Los Angeles, said Jon Stewart, an expert in earthquake engineering and the vice chair of UCLA’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

The Fukushima plant was designed to handle an 8.2 earthquake, and built to withstand a tsunami of 5.7 meters, so the plant was easily overwhelmed by March 11’s 9.0 earthquake and 12-to-14 meter wave, Stewart said. Plant operators should have learned from evidence of a similarly extreme event that happened there more than 1,000 ago, he added.

“In 869, there was a major earthquake that occurred off of Sendai,” Stewart said. Sedimentologists began studying it in earnest in 2007, decades after Fukushima was built. “They found sediment consistent with a tsunami all across the east coast of Japan, in most of the same areas that were affected by the March earthquake, he said.”

The 40-year-old plant did not keep up with the new information, nor did operators consider their “linked vulnerabilities,” or the way an earthquake could damage the plant and cause flooding that would kill the back-up generators, Stewart said. “You have to keep pace with scientific knowledge,” Stewart said. “You can’t just build a nuclear power plant and walk away.”

With the generators down, Fukushima only had eight hours of battery power, noted UCLA Chacellor Emeritus Albert Carnesale, who is serving on the U.S. Department of Energy Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future.

“In the United States, we have 104 reactors. Eleven of them have only eight hours of battery supply,” Carnesale said. “The other 93 have four hours.”

In case of an accident, U.S. recommendations include evacuating everyone within 50 miles of an affected reactor, Carnesale continued. For Southern California’s San Onofre plant, that would mean evacuating eight and a half million people – some of whom attended the panel discussion. Nationwide, 110 million people live within 50 miles of a reactor, Carnesale continued. Response plans are in place, but not practiced, he said.

“How many of you, when there’s a fire drill, look for ways to stay at your desk?” he said. “Now imagine trying to get millions of people [to practice evacuating].”

Understandably, most attention is spent trying to prevent nuclear accidents, but the United States must spend more time planning how to respond to them, Carnesale said. “You have to prepare for extremely unlikely events,” he said.

The Ukrainian government is still grappling with the leakage from Chernobyl, and the Japanese government is becoming increasingly concerned about the size of the evacuation zone for Fukushima, where clean-up could last a century, said Glen MacDonald, director of the UCLA Institute on the Environment and Sustainability.

Sean Hecht, the executive director of the Environmental Law Center at UCLA’s School of Law, noted that U.S. insurance laws cap the nuclear power industry’s liability, removing the incentives to build nuclear power plants away from population centers. He also criticized the Supreme Court, which found that a requirement to plan for “reasonably foreseeable risks” before building a reactor does not require a worst-case scenario analysis. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he added, doesn’t consider terrorist attacks on nuclear facilities among the “reasonably foreseeable risks” plants need to consider before building, although Carnesale noted that reactor operators do prepare response plans against terrorism.

Even as the Fukushima disaster makes Americans look more askance at nuclear power, it is still an important alternative to coal, petroleum and natural gas, said Deepak Rajagopal, a professor of energy economics and environmental policy. If you take climate change seriously, then you have to consider nuclear energy as an alternative to carbon-emitting fuels, he said. From a policy perspective, the U.S. needs a stable energy supply since petroleum reserves will become increasingly centralized in the Middle East as other countries’ supplies continue to dwindle, Rajagopal continued.

Richard Jackson, chair of the department of Environmental Health and Safety in the UCLA School of Public Health, noted that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have been rising drastically in his lifetime.

“If your patient is retaining CO2, your patient will die,” he said.

Nevertheless, the panel of experts acknowledged, Fukushima will slow down any nuclear-power renaissance in the U.S. that may have been forming. If you ran an electric company looking for a new power source, Carnesale asked rhetorically, would you invest in nuclear now? The audience’s wan chuckles answered the question.

Published: Wednesday, April 20, 2011