Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Always fighting the last war - who cares about earthquake zones?

We are predictably reactive. Perhaps it's good that we are reactive, but we end up missing the bigger picture.

According to this USA TODAY article:

After the Fukushima disaster, President Obama ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to evaluate the earthquake risk of every nuclear plant in the nation, said Victor Dricks, an NRC spokesman.

Using data provided by ESRI (based near me in Redlands), the NRC determined that five nuclear plants were in earthquake zones - two here in California, one in Texas, one in Louisiana, and one in North Carolina.

The USA TODAY article goes on to note that San Onofre is able to withstand a magintude 7.0 quake and a 27 foot tsunami. (The article also notes that the Japanese quake was of magnitude 9.0 and generated a 46 foot tsunami. But I digress.)

Now I don't mean to fault President Obama and the NRC for their actions, which are certainly prudent. But the emphasis on nuclear plants that are in in earthquake areas tends to warp the issue.

Why do I say this? Because when you look at the three largest nuclear disasters, two of them were NOT caused by earthquakes. And if you add Windscale to this list, then only one in four was caused by earthquake activity.

According to the sources, Chernobyl was caused by human error coupled with a lack of a backup safety apparatus. Three Mile Island was caused by a pump failure. Windscale happened during a maintenance exercise gone awry.

Perhaps you can locate a nuclear plant in a place that is not prone to earthquakes, but you're still going to have humans, pumps, and maintenance exercises around. Let's hope that our "avoid earthquakes" tunnel vision doesn't blind us to other things that could cause problems. (Can you say Katrina?)
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