Nuclear Power Plant Withstands Major Earthquake

Published October 1, 2007

In a real-world test of nuclear power plant safety, the world’s largest nuclear power plant, at Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, Japan, took the brunt of a major earthquake on July 16, 2007 and passed the test admirably.

Little Damage Suffered

Despite a magnitude 6.8 earthquake striking the nuclear power plant, the August 7 Daily Yomiuri reported, some “unnecessary fuss over the leak of a small amount of radioactive material” failed to undermine the positive significance of the event, because the release amounted to less than one-10 millionth of the dose of annual radiation an ordinary person is exposed to from the natural environment.

“Although the plant suffered damage, including a small fire at a power transformer, the safety of the plant’s nuclear reactors was never jeopardized,” the Daily Yomiuri observed.

No Special Precautions Taken

Japanese nuclear power plants are designed to meet the anti-seismic guidelines set up by the nation’s Nuclear Safety Commission. The potential radiation exposure from the small amount of leakage in the earthquake was essentially meaningless, as the Daily Yomiuri noted. A single chest x-ray with all normal safety precautions entails far more radiation exposure than the radiation effects from the earthquake’s damage to the power plant.

Nuclear safety analysts were further encouraged because the nuclear plant did not have any special earthquake-resistant design technology, yet performed so well in the crosshairs of a major quake. Even though the facility was built on a major fault line, the integrity of the plant was never jeopardized.

The London Times sent an obviously concerned reporter to the scene with a gamma counter to measure radiation. The reporter, Leo Lewis, reported his gamma counter measured no unusual radioactivity after the quake.

As a result, Lewis was left to report about the tremendous damage to various structures around the earthquake epicenter, and to wonder how the nuclear power plant endured so safely.

Nuclear Safety Confirmed

The answer, experts note, is that a nuclear plant core is in a very strong confinement area cooled by water. Radioactive material is embedded in metal rods that are in a core surrounded by protection and insulation. Even with no special earthquake precautions taken, the containment facility is remarkably strong.

“It is indeed remarkable that the combination of human fallibility and mechanical failure over the last 40 years has resulted in a nuclear safety record unsurpassed by any other industrial activity,” said Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute.

“Commercial nuclear electricity in the United States has killed zero members of the public over that period. Conventional electric power plants powered by coal, oil, and natural gas produce more than 200 accidental deaths per year,” Lehr continued. “The worst built and maintained nuclear plant in history, at Chernobyl, which could never have passed muster in the West, provides the worst-case scenario of fewer than 100 deaths from nuclear radiation. Three Mile Island in the United States, ballyhooed as a plant failure, was in fact a safety success, as automated shutoff systems resulted in neither sickness nor death,” Lehr added.

John Dale Dunn, M.D., J.D. ([email protected]) is a member of the Emergency Medicine Faculty at Darnall Hospital, Fort Hood, Texas. He is a member of the Board of Science and Policy Advisors for the American Council on Science and Health.