"Japan Races to Prevent Nuclear Meltdowns" reads the headline on this AP story. In the AP photo above left, a technician tests a father and infant for exposure to radiation.
The Kosher Hedgehog knows when to admit a mistake. I had thought that nuclear power plant safety technology had advanced in recent decades to the point where a nuclear power plant may be safely located in a seismically active zone. The fallout (both literal and figurative) from the Japanese earthquake last week proves unforunately that this is not yet the case. As I post this column, thank G-d, there has not yet been any large-scale release of radiation, if Japanese official reports are to be believed. However, the Japanese government has been compelled to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people from the areas surrounding its threatened nuclear plants, and the Japanese are scrambling to cool down the reactors where the cooling systems have failed in a desperate effort to prevent core meltdowns.
That is not good enough. Any nuclear plant in a seismic zone must have a mechanism that reliably will cool down or shut down the core in the event of an earthquake sufficiently strong to threaten the efficacy of the nuclear core cooling system, and that mechanism must itself be earthquake proof. The Japanese plants failed that test.
I am shocked and surprised that in Japan, the only nation on earth ever to suffer nuclear attack, and therefore reputedly a country that harbors deeply ingrained anti-nuclear sentiment, and moreover a place where awareness of seismic threat is deeply imbedded in the culture and the national consciousness, the political will somehow was mustered to build nuclear plants that turned out to be entirely too vulnerable to earthquakes. Admittedly I do not know how new or old those plants are, or whether they have state-of-the-art seismic protection systems. However, any argument that these were old-design plants is hardly persuasive--if that is the case they either should have been retrofitted or closed.
Also, I am not persuaded by the argument that a .9 Richter scale earthquake is a once in a half-millenium event. A far weaker quake centered closer to the nuclear plants most likely would have done the same damage to the plant cooling systems.
If I had to vote today whether to approve the construction of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, which is located on the Pacific Ocean coastline in northern San Diego County, I unequivocably would vote no. Until the nuclear industry can convincingly empirically demonstrate with a very high degree of reliability that it has developed a seismically safe plant design, any new nuclear plants had better be located well away from the Alaska-Washington-Oregon-California coast and fault-lines. Hawaii and the seismically active portions of Nevada, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho also must be ruled out as nuclear power plants sites for the time being. Ditto the 200-mile long New Madrid Seismic Zone which covers portions of Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas. Until the seismic issue has a technological fix with demonstrated reliability, one should put nuclear plants only in relatively benign seismic zones, such as South Dakota or Kansas. And then make sure the plants are tornado-proof.