March 13, 2011
Lessons From Japan For US West Coast

Planet Earth is dangerous. Those of us on the US, Canadian, and Central American West Coast should think seriously about what we can learn from the Japanese earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor failures.

Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami is alerting the US west coast that the same kind of thing could happen here. In fact, say experts who study the earth’s shifting crust, the “big one” may be past due.

The Pacific Northwest is especially vulnerable and could experience a 9.0 earthquake either onshore or offshore. If offshore the time to get to higher ground would be on the order of about 15 minutes. The Cascadia subduction zone could shake and cause offshore landslides that would cause massive wave movement.

The Cascadia earthquake of 1700 was previously thought to be part of a pattern of earthquakes that averaged 500 year intervals. But more recent research puts the average earthquake interval at 240 years. So we are about 71 years past the average Cascadia earthquake interval.

What about California? A Hayward fault quake could devastate the Bay Area forcing 200,000 out of their homes. SoCal is overdue for a Carrizo Plain earthquake. Risks come from other faults as well.

The US has several big earthquake risks including the New Madrid fault which last let loose in a major way in 1811 and 1812. A replay of especially severe 19th century natural disasters would make the earthquake in Japan small stuff in comparison.

What I'd like to know: How at risk are the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants from a tsunami and/or strong earthquake? Should they be made safer from tsunami or earthquake risks? The take-home lesson from the Japanese nuclear power plant failures is that equipment and designs for maintaining sufficient reactor coolant water must be capable of handling severe earthquakes. The need for active systems (as distinct from passive systems) to cool nuclear reactors is a very unfortunate aspect of most (all?) operating nuclear power plants today.

Diablo Canyon is designed to handle 20 foot tsunami waves. Can even bigger tsunami waves strike there?

DCPP is designed for storm surge waves of 36 feet and tsunami waves of 20 feet. In 1981, DCPP experienced a 31-foot storm surge. Because of the location and relative geometry of DCPP and the Cascadia (Washington-Oregon) earthquake, there would be no significant tsunami wave action at DCPP, particularly compared to the storm surge that has already been experienced at the plant. Waves from Alaska and Chile could be expected to reach DCPP in five and 13 hours, respectively.

Practical advice: Got enough water to last a couple of weeks? Got enough batteries? Warm clothing if you lose electric power and natural gas?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 March 13 11:25 PM  Dangers Natural Geological

Bruce said at March 13, 2011 11:56 PM:

Every trillion squandered on global warming, is a trillion not spenton earthquake preparedness.

Earl the Pearl said at March 14, 2011 5:21 AM:

The image of humanity on earth can be best juxtaposed on an image of the "rider" (us) and the bucking bronco (the world) as it tries to flip us off, we are living in our 8 seconds (relative time).

Steven said at March 14, 2011 7:30 AM:

San Onofre was designed to survive a 7.0 earthquake and 25 foot tsunami:

jp straley said at March 14, 2011 7:44 AM:

I am just a bit surprised that the detail-oriented Japanese continued to use the two reactors that are giving such problems. They were BWRs from the early 1970s, and more modern BWRs are less likely to experience emergency shutdown problems. The Japanese had gotten their investment back, but apparently wanted to go on profitably using these somewhat antiquated machines.

On the flip side, the Japanese are apparently on the forefront of bringing thorium-fuel molten salt reactors into practical use. These types of reactors fail to a safe mode, and present less likelihood of spreading radioactive materials in case of a breech. The fuel is cheaper, more abundant, and more efficiently utilized compared to uranium.

Will this reactor problem will be the end of the so-called nuclear renaissance? I don't think so. It will inspire Japan, which cannot go the route of burning coal for electrical energy, to lead the way to a new generation of nuclear (or even fusion) power. They've got the Rossi option, the Th MSR, the Eric Lerner Focus Fusion, the EMC2 wiffleball....there are very interesting prospects out there, and when a bunch of clever people like the Japanese have what amounts to an existential problem before them, they will perform pretty well. Let's see what will happen!

JP Straley

Chris T said at March 14, 2011 9:14 AM:

My dad (a geologist) and I were discussing earthquakes and the West Coast on Friday. I live in Seattle and it's only been in the last couple of decades that buildings have really been built to resist earthquakes. If a major quake hit here, we'd be in trouble.

The good news is we're shielded from tsunamis by the Olympic peninsula.

Bruce said at March 14, 2011 9:44 AM:

jp, a more modern nuclear plant in Japan was shutdown because of an earthquake.

"A 6.8-magnitude temblor on July 16, 2007, caused a fire and radiation leaks that shut down the Kashiwazaki Kariwa nuclear plant, the world’s biggest. It took almost two years to restart."

Actually, the last reactor took until Nov 2010 to restart.

With NG now plentiful and cheap, a distributed system of NG power plants makes way more sense than centralized nuclear plants.

Calvin Dodge said at March 14, 2011 1:50 PM:

The Oregon/Washington vulnerability is why we've never considered moving there (the prevalent Lefty politics was a lesser factor). Meanwhile, people well south of Seattle face their own threat the next time Mount Rainier lights off (historical mud flows hundreds of feet deep).

Bruce said at March 14, 2011 2:18 PM:

"The good news is we're shielded from tsunamis by the Olympic peninsula."

Unless the earthquake happens on a major fault in puget sound.

I was living over 100 miles from the Duvall quake in 1996 and watched my dining room chandelier go horizontal ... and it was only a 5.3.

BioBob said at March 14, 2011 3:45 PM:

I agree with Bruce.

It makes little sense to built nukes with questionable energy return on investment when known producing reserves of natural gas are skyrocketing past the 100 year supply level. NG is relatively clean, the power plants are relatively fast & cheap to construct, cheap to operate and scale up as required.

Damage to pipelines is relatively quick & easy to remediate and while it might blow up a small neighborhood, people can rebuild and move back in immediately without having to wait for several hundred (thousand) years, LOL.

th said at March 14, 2011 5:27 PM:

In the 1990's, the consensus, concluded Nat gas supplies were plentiful enough for a large build of combined cycle gas turbines and the resulting havoc was costly to US industry and the power industry found out the hard way gas supplies weren't sustainable. I wouldn't be surprised if they aren't reluctant to try it again. If you want to see gas prices go back to $10/m cu.ft., give gas turbine power generation a 30% share of the power mix, these things, combined cycle included, use a phenomenal amount of gas. The advantage of cheap Natgas would be lost on power generation, using it to rebuild the US industrial base would maximize it's benefits to the economy.

Wolf-Dog said at March 14, 2011 7:45 PM:

Maybe it is time to start giving priority to the development of the Molten Salt Reactors, which are inherently safe and compact. They do not require the same kind of pressurized containment:

Bruce said at March 14, 2011 8:24 PM:

NG is already at 23.8% for US electricity.

They used 8.6tcf for the year.

The only thing keep NG from higher usage is that coal is cheaper.

Constitution First said at March 15, 2011 11:06 AM:

Bruce said at March 13, 2011 11:56 PM:
Every trillion squandered on global warming, is a trillion not spenton earthquake preparedness.

Absolutely Brilliant Bruce!

All I would change is to substitute the word "disaster" for "earthquake", simply for the purposes of generalization.

reminder said at March 15, 2011 12:21 PM:

"Practical advice: Got enough water to last a couple of weeks? Got enough batteries? Warm clothing if you lose electric power and natural gas?"

And almost as important... if you do, don't tell anyone about it. I'm all for helping people out, but having a few things on hand won't do you any good when 2 dozen of your coworkers show up - the ones that knew you were prepared, but couldn't be bothered to do it themselves and figured all along that they could just go to your house.

FamilyLifeBoat said at March 15, 2011 12:32 PM:

Another lesson is not to keep all your preps at home, look at all the people who were at work and hey have no homes to go home to or can't get home due to damaged infrastructure.

Hoth said at March 15, 2011 12:33 PM:

jp, if IIRC from the jumble of stuff I've read over the last couple of days, I believe the reactor that they're having all the trouble with now was set to be retired at the end of this fueling cycle which (again IIRC) was next year.

Diggs said at March 15, 2011 2:44 PM:

Reminder says, "the ones that knew you were prepared, but couldn't be bothered to do it themselves and figured all along that they could just go to your house."
Sounds an awful lot like Social Security. I'm prepared for retirement, but there are tens of thousand, perhaps millions of others that haven't bothered to get prepared for retirement who want to show up at my bank account when they turn 65. I say the first thing in your disaster preparedness pack should be a couple of weapons, including a black powder rifle for the time when rounds are no long available for your particular caliber.

th said at March 15, 2011 4:37 PM:

Bruce, will shale gas production easily surpass the yearly depletion of conventional gas well production, which led to the problem of high gas prices over the last decade. This shows typical gas dropping off sharply since 2005...which is kind of strange,

This table shows since the 90's, gas power gen. consumption has about doubled, while industrial consumption has slide, and overall US consumption about flat. Gas generation is taking all the air out of the room at the expense of aluminum, fertilizers, cement, and chemicals to name a few..

Bruce said at March 15, 2011 4:42 PM:

Hey, I made Instapundit!

T-shirt anyone?

th said at March 15, 2011 5:32 PM:

Great, an internet star, Randall's gone into hiding I'm sure...I think the dropoff in gas in the first table is due to higher pressure in the lines due to the additional shale gas, so it's a non issue, they're adding storage to fix that I assume.

kwo said at March 15, 2011 6:33 PM:

Maybe it is time to start giving priority to the development of the Molten Salt Reactors, which are inherently safe and compact. They do not require the same kind of pressurized containment:

From the linked wiki article...

"Fluoride salts naturally produce HF when in contact with moisture, which may lead to release of hydrofluoric acid fumes during reactor shutdowns, decommissioning, or flooding. However, competent reactor designs would never allow the salt plumbing to ingest or become exposed to moisture or other contaminants, whether in operation or shutdown."

Uh huh. Bet the Japanese thought Fukushima's design was "competent" too.

ReadyMom said at March 15, 2011 8:35 PM:

In addition to supplies at home, everyone in my family has a backpack in their car with water, cash, food, first aid kit, flashlight, warm jacket, walking shoes and a small radio.The first aid kits and radios were Christmas stocking stuffers I got at the Red Cross. In San Diego there is a good chance that, if the big one comes, the bridges will be out and you will need to hoof it home. I was surprised at my kid's response to the gifts - I expected rolled eyes and "Oh Mom!" - but they actually thanked me, and put the rest of their stuff in their cars. I think the losses we've had from the wildfires here has everyone taking preparedness more seriously.

SkippyTony said at March 15, 2011 10:08 PM:

Greetings folks,

I'm sitting in the remains of Christchurch, New Zealand, so have had some first hand experience of the disruptive effects of a significant quake, sans tsunami, thank god.

Having been through the first one in September, we made a bit more of an effort at readiness, as a family living in four different suburbs.

We all had crank powered radio / torches, the first thing you absolutely will reach for when it hits the fan. You need light to see what is happening at your place (well, we did the first time) and you will absolutely want to be in contact with "the outside world" so the radio was fantastic.

Cordless phones don't work without power - so save your old plug into the wall phone!

Buy that water. It took 3 days for supplies to start "triclking" through here, if you didn't have access to a car, you didn't have water.

Work out a way to quickly divert your downpipes into water storage facilities. We had several garbage bins that we had stored our emergency stuff in and they did duty for this - that water is invaluable.

After September, we had a series of serious discussions about what to do immediately (stay in vs get out) and rallying points for the family. This all went out the window when it happened this time, but we did have a plan, and it did help.

Buy several containers of waterless soap / hand sanitisers, four adults and three kids went through a pump every day!

Use spare spaces like in the roof or under the floor to store / save several (lots) of 2 - 10 litre water containers (empty spares). Water distribution starts at collection points and you will need containers. (big ones are hard to carry!!)

Critical medicines. Arrange a supply at one of the other houses in another suburb. Two of our families houses were inacessible for two - three days.

Dyna bolt your wine racks to the wall (dammit), some bottles may survive, depending on the direction of the quake. You will need them.

Both in September and this time, I noticed an alarming ripple effect with initial quake / aftershocks, which may not be a universally applicable rule, but bear this in mind....There will be powerfull aftershocks, in our case both times, several within the first couple of hours. The only person I knew personally who was killed this time was killed helping someone in an aftershock. We had a back to back chimney in our house which collapsed to roof height in September. There were significant signs of damage to the lower sections of the chimney. This time when the first quake hit, the whole chimney stack twisted about an inch, 3 foot above the ground. Half an hour later, I was on the phone to my parents in Australia when a big aftershock hit, and the chimney collapsed. I dropped the phone and ran as soon as the aftershock hit. Went back into the room later to find a ton or so of bricks where I had been standing.

FWIW, I'd think seriously about loosing the old brick and lime mortar chimney in any house I buy in the future, they have done more damage as they came down than anything else.

On that topic, Tile roofs are bad news in earthquakes. The buggers crack, shake loose then fall on you as you are running outside in a blind panic. Try smashing yourself over the head with one to get the feel of them falling from even a single story house.

I have calculated that I have about 8 ton of terracotta on my roof. Covering the same area with Iron would be 1.5 ton. That makes a huge difference to the damage your house sustains, as all that weight up to starts to shake, and the results are not good!

I am going to go into a series of posts on my blog (shameful plug, just getting started) to talk about what happened, how we dealt with the day to day stuff, what we did, what we should have done and so on, so go find in a few days.

Oh, and yeah, we are all OK, thanks!


Randall Parker said at March 16, 2011 11:27 PM:


Thanks for your constructive comments.

Roof weight: How about aluminum roofs? Weigh much less than steel and they do not rust.

Water containers: It would also help to have a push cart to move them with if fuel for cars runs out for too long. Ditto a bicycle I would think.

Engineer-Poet said at March 17, 2011 9:55 PM:

Note that the problem with the Daiichi reactors is that water isn't getting in.  A dry containment area built to withstand big waves wouldn't take water anyway, so a MSR wouldn't have issues with HF emissions (let alone iodine or cesium).

Stronger construction in buildings resists or prevents damage.  If it comes with top-grade insulation, so much the better.  See ThermaSave.

Darolyn Roan said at March 18, 2011 2:20 PM:

The people in the eastern part of the Americas, Europe and Africa also need to worry about tsunamis and earthquakes between now and the next hundred years or so because one of the African plates is supposed to brake off into the Atlantic. That will cause even more deficits. I think we all need to be safe and we need to have a population regulation worldly. when things like this happen there isn't enough space for people to go to get out of the way of these crisis. And it is not fair for ecosystems, plants and animals to be destroyed because there isn't room for people or their garbage. We need to be careful and we ALL need to keep up our duties to nature. We need to let it do what it wants and live with it or die. I know it's harsh but this is how it is supposed to be and this is how we will have a better society. We also need to learn to use Green resources. We need to learn how to maintain nuclear power at a safe level. There is so much we need to do, but we need to work together and everyone needs to help.

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