With reports still coming in about the devastation in Japan, one thing is clear: had the 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck a populated coastal region of the United States, even greater destruction would have occurred.
In terms of earthquake and tsunami preparation, Japan leads the way when it comes to disaster preparedness. “If any country understands [the] interplay of earthquakes, waves and buildings it is Japan, which has developed stringent building codes and well-rehearsed evacuation plans.” Even with all the precautions taken, Japanese public broadcaster NHK reported that, “63,000 buildings had been damaged, more than 6,000 of them obliterated.”
Trouble in Japan for Nuclear Power Plants
However, even the most advanced seismic retrofitting and planning is not catastrophe proof, as demonstrated by the effects of last week’s earthquake and tsunami. Japan is currently witnessing “all kinds of damage from the quake, including power outages…radiation leaks from nuclear power plants, fresh water shortages and fires.”
One nuclear power plant in particular, Fukushima, could not withstand the aftershocks from the quake. After ongoing aftershocks struck the plant, explosions at multiple Fukushima reactors occurred and technicians battled to stabilize additional reactors which were reportedly at risk of fuel-rod meltdown.
Early this morning “A fire and a fresh aftershock struck the Fukushima nuclear plant...The government confirms that the level of radiation around the reactor has risen, requiring the remaining 50 technicians to briefly evacuate to a safe place.”
What the U.S. Can Learn from Japan’s Earthquake
The explosions at Fukushima have had a chilling effect on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Numerous power plants across the country, including Exelon Nuclear’s Generating Station and the Peach Bottom nuclear plant, both located in Pennsylvania, will be reviewed for their safety standards. Neil Sheehan, a spokesperson for the NRC stated that:
Advances in seismic science have prompted his agency to undertake a project to review safeguards at some of the nation’s nuclear power plants as they relate to any seismic issues specific to each plant’s location…These plants were all built to withstand seismic activity…but a lot of them were built in the 60s and 70s and our ability to gather seismic data and do computer modeling on that data is much improved since then.
According to Senator Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, “Power plants are required to withstand the highest-probable earthquake in each region where they’re built; the U.S. also has emergency evacuation plans in place near plants.”
New Power Plants Under Consideration
The NRC had plans in the works to review many existing U.S. nuclear power plants before the latest earthquake struck Japan, and a major reason for that was due to the recent surge in new applications for the construction of power plants. “After a 30-year hiatus, several new plants are now under consideration,” and the U.S. has been working to re-start nuclear power plant construction as a way to reduce its dependence on fossil fuel and curb greenhouse gas emissions.
In light of what has happened in Japan, Lieberman believes that we should not begin building any new plants until we gather more information on what went wrong in Japan.
The damage caused by natural disasters like the recent earthquake in New Zealand and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan should serve as a lesson to contractors that seismic retrofitting is going to become a standard for future projects, particularly in the case of large infrastructure projects such as bridges, dams pipelines and power plants. It is important to stay abreast of new regulations as they come out, and adjust building plans accordingly. Even in areas where natural disasters are less likely to occur, projects will have to adopt to new standards, as demonstrated here in Pennsylvania, where two nuclear power plants are being reviewed for safety standards.