Beyond Nuclear: Concerns Rise Over Vulnerability of U.S. Atomic Facilities to Earthquakes After World’s Largest Nuclear Plant Damaged by Japanese Quake

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
JULY 18, 2007
4:24 PM

CONTACT: Beyond Nuclear 
Linda Gunter, Beyond Nuclear 301.455.5655 linda@beyondnuclear.org

 
Concerns Rise Over Vulnerability of U.S. Atomic Facilities to Earthquakes After World’s Largest Nuclear Plant Damaged by Japanese Quake
 

MARYLAND — JULY 18— The extensive damage at a seven-reactor nuclear power plant in Japan after an earthquake this week is stoking concern that U.S. reactors and other nuclear facilities may also be vulnerable to releases of deadly radioactivity into the environment due to earthquakes.

Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Kashiwazaki-Kariwa atomic power plant, the largest in the world in terms of electricity output, suffered 50 cases of “malfunctioning and trouble” after a 6.7 tremor struck nearby two days ago. Radioactively contaminated water, now calculated at more than 600 gallons, leaked into the Pacific Ocean and an estimated 400 barrels containing radioactive waste tipped over, with 10% of the lids falling off. Hazardous radioactive isotopes, cobalt-60 and chromium-51, were emitted into the atmosphere from an exhaust stack.

Concerns that a similar event could happen here are confirmed by an incident in August 2004, when an earthquake in Illinois broke an underground pipe attached to one of the Dresden nuclear power plant’s radioactive waste condensate storage tanks. The broken pipe was leaking tritium (a harmful, radioactive form of hydrogen) into groundwater, creating an expanding underground plume of hazardous radioactive contamination.

Several U.S. atomic reactors may be especially vulnerable to earthquakes. The twin reactor Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near San Luis Obispo, California was already built before it was discovered that an earthquake fault line associated with the infamous San Andreas Fault lay just offshore in the Pacific Ocean.

Fires, such as the one that broke out in Japan, are also a legitimate U.S. concern.

“Earthquakes are notorious for sparking fires, which could spell disaster at U.S. nuclear power plants given that many are not in compliance with safety regulations for fire protection and reactor shutdown systems,” said Paul Gunter, the nuclear industry watchdog at Beyond Nuclear, and an expert on nuclear plant fire protection. “An earthquake-sparked inferno, or failure to safely shut down a reactor, could lead to a meltdown, catastrophic release of radioactivity, and deadly fallout hundreds of miles downwind and downstream,” Gunter added.

A 1982 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) report, known as CRAC-2, shows that a major accident at a U.S. atomic reactor could cause tens to hundreds of thousands of radiation-related deaths and injuries, as well as hundreds of billions of dollars of property damage.

Risks extend to the radioactive wastes stored on-site at U.S. reactors as well. Environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit last month against the NRC for failing to enforce its earthquake safety regulations for outdoor storage of high-level radioactive wastes at the Palisades atomic reactor on the shores of Lake Michigan. The lake supplies drinking water for Chicago and millions downstream.

“An earthquake could bury the containers under sand causing the nuclear fuel rods to overheat, or could even submerge them under the waters of Lake Michigan,” said Kevin Kamps, Radioactive Waste Watchdog at Beyond Nuclear. “This could initiate a nuclear chain reaction in the wastes making emergency response a suicide mission. In either case, it would amount to a radiological disaster for Lake Michigan and the millions who depend on it for drinking water.”

Earthquake risks also plague the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada dumpsite for commercial and military high-level radioactive wastes. Nearly three dozen earthquake fault lines are in the vicinity, and two faults actually intersect the proposed burial spot. Many hundreds of tremors larger than 2.5 on the Richter scale have struck within 50 miles of Yucca Mountain since 1975. One jolt, measuring 5.4 on the Richter scale, struck just ten miles from Yucca Mountain in 1992, doing extensive damage to the U.S. Department of Energy’s field office at the site. Critics fear that a major earthquake at the dump site could cause a radiological catastrophe by damaging waste handling surface facilities planned for the site, or could cause tunnel collapses that would breach waste burial containers, spilling their deadly contents into the drinking water aquifer below.

“The risks of earthquakes alone are reason enough to stop the Yucca Mountain dump proposal dead in its tracks right now,” said Kamps.

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The Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Quake Chronology

Tokyo Electric Power Company’s seven reactor Kashiwazaki-Kariwa atomic power plant, the largest in the world in terms of electricity output, suffered 50 cases of “malfunctioning and trouble” after a 6.7 tremor struck nearby two days ago. Radioactively contaminated water, at first estimated to be around 315 gallons but later raised by 50%, leaked into the Pacific Ocean. Barrels containing radioactive waste tipped over, and 10% of their lids fell off; the number of barrels was first estimated at 100, but later increased to 400. Hazardous radioactive isotopes cobalt-60 and chromium-51 were emitted into the atmosphere from an exhaust stack. The first sign of trouble was not an alert issued by the company, but rather a column of black smoke pouring off a transformer fire that took two hours to bring under control. The quake, epi-centered on a previously unknown fault line just over five miles from the nuclear plant, created forces 2.5 times stronger than the plant was designed to withstand. Based upon data from the quake’s aftershocks, Japanese authorities now fear an extension of the fault line may pass very near to, or even directly under, the atomic complex itself. The twelve hour delay before the company announced the radioactive leak into the ocean, the day-long delay in discovering the tipped over barrels, and the increasing magnitude of the spills and other problems has caused consternation among environmental groups, local residents and politicians, even with the Japanese Prime Minister himself.

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