Nukewatch Quarterly Winter 2014
By Andrew Topf
— Andrew Topf, who was an editor at mining.com, wrote a version of this article for Oilprice.com.
The tsunami that followed shortly after a 9.0 [undersea] mega-quake off the northeast coast of Japan was shocking in its magnitude—killing close to 16,000. But it was soon apparent that another disaster was in the making, when the surging waves inundated pumps used to cool down the reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power complex.
The resultant [triple reactor] fuel meltdown[s] and leakage of radiation led to the immediate evacuation of the site, and a chain of events that eventually had Japan shutting down all of its nuclear reactors. Germany, a major consumer of nuclear power, permanently closed eight of its 17 nuclear reactors following Fukushima [and legislated a permanent phase out of the rest]; other European countries shelved their [reactor construction] plans.
While nuclear proponents view Fukushima as an aberration and trust that nuclear is mostly safe, opponents hold it, and other major accidents such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, as exemplifying the perils of nuclear power.
Oilprice.com looked at the countries whose nuclear reactors would be most vulnerable to a tsunami. We based our list—in no particular order—on a report by the Community Research and Development Information Service (CORDIS), part of the European Commission, which mapped out the world’s geographic zones most at risk of large tsunamis. We then cross-referenced those countries with information from the World Nuclear Association on each country’s nuclear program. According to the CORDIS report, 23 nuclear power stations with 74 reactors were identified in high-risk areas. The riskiest country was China, which has 27 reactors currently under construction, the largest number in the world. Of those 27, 17 are being built in areas considered dangerous for tsunamis.
China—China currently has 21 operating nuclear plants, and 27 being built. China’s most active earthquake zones are in the interior, far from its existing reactors on the east coast. However, high earthquake activity on the Chinese east coast should not discount this threat. Moreover, as its electricity needs grow, China is likely to site new reactors in the interior, including two proposed reactors in Sichuan—the site of a major quake in 2013.
Taiwan—Two of the reactors cited in the CORDIS report are in Taiwan. Like Japan, Taiwan is at considered high-risk of nuclear reactor damage from tsunamis due to its high frequency of earthquakes, historically, correlated to its land area—which is known as seismic density.
Japan—Japan has 19 reactors at seven sites at risk of tsunamis, including Fukushima I, according to the CORDIS report.
South Korea—Twenty-three reactors provide 20.7 Gigawatts of electrical output, nearly a third of the country’s needs. However, CORDIS identified five reactors at tsunami risk, through the expansion of two plants.
United States—Many seismologists believe that the Cascadia subduction zone, running from Vancouver Island to northern California, is overdue for a major earthquake of equal force to what occurred recently in Japan and Chile. That puts the US on the high end of the risk scale. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission put out a report in 2011 rating US reactors at the highest risk of earthquake damage. Surprisingly, the Diablo Canyon reactors, situated between the California coastline and the San Andreas Fault, were not considered most prone to a tsunami. No. 1 on the NRC list was Indian Point, 24 miles from New York City, with second and third positions occupied by reactors in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, respectively.
Pakistan—Pakistan has a small nuclear program. A 7.7-magnitude quake struck Pakistan’s remote southwest region in 2013, killing at least 328. CORDIS identified one Pakistani reactor in its report that is at risk of a tsunami.
India—CORDIS also mentioned two nuclear reactors in India that could face tsunami damage. India’s seismicity is well-documented. A mega-quake measuring 7.7 on the Richter scale hit Gujarat in 2001 killing over 20,000. The same number of people were killed eight years earlier during a quake in Maharashtra.
Iran—Iran currently has one operating nuclear reactor. After the Japanese tsunami, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that its Brushehr nuclear plant could not be hit because the facility is more modern than the 40-year-old Fukushima complex. In 2013, two earthquakes, one at 5.6 magnitude and the other at 6.1, struck the region around the Brushehr plant.