Harvey Wasserman : California Quake Hit Could Irradiate Entire Country

The Fukushima No. 1 power plant of Tokyo Electric Power at Okuma, Fukushima Prefecture, northern Japan, shown in a photograph from October 2008. Japan has issued a state of emergency at the nuclear power plant after its cooling system failed. Photo from AP.

Had it hit off the California coast:
Japan’s quake could have
irradiated the entire United States

By Harvey Wasserman / The Rag Blog / March 11, 2011

Had the massive 8.9 Richter-scale earthquake that has just savaged Japan hit off the California coast, it could have ripped apart at least four coastal reactors and sent a lethal cloud of radiation across the entire United States.

The two huge reactors each at San Onofre and Diablo Canyon are not designed to withstand such powerful shocks. All four are extremely close to major faults.

All four reactors are located relatively low to the coast. They are vulnerable to tsunamis like those now expected to hit as many as 50 countries.

San Onofre sits between San Diego and Los Angeles. A radioactive cloud spewing from one or both reactors there would do incalculable damage to either or both urban areas before carrying over the rest of southern and central California.

Diablo Canyon is at Avila Beach, on the coast just west of San Luis Obispo, between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A radioactive eruption there would pour into central California and, depending on the winds, up to the Bay Area or southeast into Santa Barbara and then to Los Angeles. The cloud would at very least permanently destroy much of the region on which most Americans rely for their winter supply of fresh vegetables.

By the federal Price-Anderson Act of 1957, the owners of the destroyed reactors — including Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison — would be covered by private insurance only up to $11 billion, a tiny fraction of the trillions of dollars worth of damage that would be done. The rest would become the responsibility of the federal taxpayer and the fallout victims. Virtually all homeowner insurance policies in the United States exempt the insurers from liability from a reactor disaster.

The most definitive recent study of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster puts the death toll at 985,000. The accident irradiated a remote rural area. The nearest city, Kiev, is 80 kilometers away.

But San Luis Obispo is some ten miles directly downwind from Diablo Canyon. The region around San Onofre has become heavily suburbanized.

Heavy radioactive fallout spread from Chernobyl blanketed all of Europe within a matter of days. It covered an area far larger than the United States.

Fallout did hit the jet stream and then the coast of California, thousands of miles away, within 10 days. It then carried all the way across the northern tier of the United States.

Chernobyl Unit Four was of comparable size to the two reactors at Diablo Canyon, and somewhat larger than the two at San Onofre.

But it was very new when it exploded. California’s four coastal reactors have been operating since the 1970s and 1980s. Their accumulated internal radioactive burdens could exceed what was spewed at Chernobyl.

Japanese officials say all affected reactors automatically shut, with no radiation releases. But they are not reliable. In 2007 a smaller earthquake rocked the seven-reactor Kashiwazaki site and forced its lengthy shutdown.

Preliminary reports indicate at least one fire at a Japanese reactor hit by this quake and tsunami.

In 1986 the Perry nuclear plant, east of Cleveland, was rocked by a 5.5 Richter-scale shock, many orders of magnitude weaker than this one. That quake broke pipes and other key equipment within the plant. It took out nearby roads and bridges.

Thankfully, Perry had not yet opened. An official Ohio commission later warned that evacuation during such a quake would be impossible.

Numerous other American reactors sit on or near earthquake faults.

The Obama Administration is now asking Congress for $36 billion in new loan guarantees to build more commercial reactors.

It has yet to reveal its exact plans for dealing with a major reactor disaster. Nor has it identified the cash or human reserves needed to cover the death and destruction imposed by the reactors’ owners.

[Harvey Wasserman edits NukeFree.org. He is Senior Advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. He co-authored Killing Our Own: the Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation.]

The Rag Blog

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8 Responses to Harvey Wasserman : California Quake Hit Could Irradiate Entire Country

  1. Brother Jonah says:

    Yeah, the FIRST headline I read about it was that it wouldn’t break the money market because the yen was still strong and that it affected oil prices. You know, nothing about the thousand then known to be dead or missing. Heaven forfend.

    Nice to see they had their priorities straight.

    I can see the headlines now “Second Coming occurs this morning, Dow and Nasdaq plummet”.

    You know the Hate Speech Radioheads like Levin and Limbaugh and Beck are going to try to spin this, right?

    Or “spin it to the right”. They spin so much and so quickly they should rename themselves Dreidl.

    Near misses like that are what they feed on, it somehow proves that a more serious accident couldn’t possibly happen.

    Rush:”Yeah, me and (m)Ann Coulter were playing Reversian Roulette, where we had five bullets in six cylinders, she took her shot, click no fire…
    Then it was my turn…”

    Beck: “What happened then?”

    Rush: “Well, being the Retard that I truly am I stuck the gun in my ear, pulled the trigger, and missed my tiny little brain by a “Long Shot” ha ha ha get it? Long “shot”? Ha ha ha”

    Levin:”Well, that proves all those Lefty Loon Alarmists wrong, they say that when you shoot yourself in the head you could really hurt yourself badly!”

    Palin:”Ha ha ha! What a bunch of Paniculators! I shoot myself every other week and it don’t hurt me none”

  2. Brother Jonah says:

    On an even more speculative yet entirely serious note, The Bush-Cheney doctrine is that if there’s a one percent chance (like the country they’ve targeted for invasion, occupation and setting up a puppet dictatorship) then any action is justified.

    Just, you know, the reverse is never applied.

    If placing nuclear reactors on fault lines is going to actually guarantee an accident, sooner or later, it’s like the Russian roulette analogy… you have 6 chambers in the revolver, you squeeze the trigger 6 times and one of those times it’ll be on the loaded chamber. Add more bullets and there’ll be more times that it will happen.

    There’s been geologic instability in the Cleburne-Glen Rose area from rock fracking for oil and gas extraction.

    Glen Rose is where the Comanche Peak reactor is, built by Brown and Root, (Halliburton) who are a sorry worthless corporation which cuts corners everywhere, from cheating the workers to buying defective equipment and construction material.

    Glen Rose is also very near the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Yes, nuclear reactors are complex and dangerous, especially compared to such alternative energy sources as sunlight, wind, and geothermal. Hydro-power is also complex and dangerous, as dams can break and drown people. And hydrocarbon-based power generation causes global warming as surely as night follows day.

    I would submit that nuclear power merits a more serious examination, given the imperative to address global warming. Advances in nuclear technology since the early days of left organizing against nukes address the most serious safety concerns, and we know that we no longer have the luxury of relying on greenhouse-gas-emitting power sources any longer.

    It’s time to update the note cards.

  4. Brother Jonah says:

    Yeah, the basic parts of nuclear power generation are very simple. In 1983 there were TWO submarines in the U.S. fleet which did NOT run on nuclear power, one of which had just caught fire. My brother worked on the sub-tender that serviced the other.
    Because it’s simple. You put radioactive metal in close proximity with enough other radioactive metal and it starts to heat up. Fast. You continually run cold water over it to keep it from getting Very Hot, “the China Syndrome” where it would get hot enough to melt a hole all the way to China. All the while the stuff will be emitting radiation in the “hard” sectors, like X and Gamma. The part that takes proteins, DNA, RNA and assorted other necessary for every life form known to man, including man, apart.

    Hence it’s very popular among people who like to find more, nastier and “better” ways to dismantle their fellow humans.

    Containing that radiation and the irradiated materials, such as the water that is used to cool the reaction, and is turned into steam which turns turbines which either power ships or power Electric Generators, that’s where things get tricky.
    At Three Mile Island, they managed to keep the core from melting down, but not fast enough to keep radioactive steam from escaping. At Chernobyl they weren’t nearly that lucky.

    By the way, for any Republicans or Tea Party activists reading this far, it’s Chernobyl that brought down The Wall, NOT Ronnie Ray-Guns.

    And, now, in Japan…Two of the three cooling units are completely gone, the US has decided to make a “Hail Mary pass” involving pumping seawater directly into the now-defunct non-containment domes

    This is decidedly Not Cool.

    There are evacuations underway. People, human beings, treated for radiation injuries.

    and it’s still not over.

    As Einstein is quoted: “It’s one Hell of a way to boil water”.

  5. Brother Jonah says:

    Then there’s Solar, wind and hydrogen. Not the hydroelectric dam system, but the element, that makes up two thirds of the atoms and 1/6th the mass of water.

    Solar and Wind power are, as the pundits point out, sporadic. The sun and wind mostly occur in the daytime. The time when energy Demand is highest. But that’s not enough to replace every coal natural gas or nuclear generator. That it would take off enough of the load, especially if there were a little, you know, CONSERVATION put in place, that new coal plants would not have to be built, Well, the Coal-Nuclear-Oil-Gas lobby hopes we’ll not notice that part.

    and rather than fund research into say, splitting water molecules into hydrogen (fuel) and Oxygen ( the ultimate ANTI-Greenhouse gas) which uses Direct Current Electric.

    Hmmm… one of the largest concerns about solar is that it’s Direct Current thus not very good for the Grid. Not as efficient for transmission over copper wire as Alternating Current, which, really, there’s about a 50% loss of power between one end of the wire and the other over the long distances of the grid. Also it’s not stored.

    And it’s Direct Current which splits the water molecule best…
    Liquid Hydrogen is a lot safer to transport than Liquid Gasoline, neither is explosive in the liquid state but gasoline and other petrochemicals are volatile carbon compounds. Meaning they evaporate quickly. And they are particularly aggressive solvents, especially with other Carbon Molecules.

    Say, for instance, sugars, starches, fats, proteins, DNA,… Hydrogen, being the lightest atom there is, would float to the top… of the atmosphere, should a tanker of hydrogen leak.

    Gasoline and other similar chemicals stay right down here with us to breathe them and thus, poison ourselves.

  6. Circa 1969 says:

    Let’s try this again, my last comment seems to have disappeared. There’s a good rundown of of the Fukushima situation on the web at


    It’s good background, whether you agree with the conclusions or not.

  7. Leslie C. says:

    Hey, how old is San Onofre? I know it’s older than the 70s, cause I went to college in Orange County in the 60s and drove down to San Diego a lot. Always gave us a foreboding feeling when we saw the domes of San Onofre, between I-5 and the ocean.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Energy Secretary Chu’s recent interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, far from reassuring the public about U.S. Nuclear plant safety, scared the hell out of me. Nobel Prize Winner Chu’s dismissal of the risk of catastrophic accidents at U.S. nuclear plants is disingenuous, at best, fundamentally dishonest at worst. His statement concerning “… a breakdown in the safety system we design so that it’s unlikely to occur once in maybe 10,000 years,” seems like it must have been extracted (piecemeal) from studies like WASH 1400, done in 1975, which estimated the probability of a core meltdown at 1 in 10,000 plant/years.
    Plant years.
    With 100 plants in the U.S. today, that’s one meltdown every 100 years.
    I know the Nobel Laureate can do the math.
    Calculating for the 1000 nuclear plants the U.S. industry wants to build, that’s one meltdown every 10 years. Based on experience with U.S., Soviet and Japanese (G.E.) reactors, that figure seems to be holding true. And that is not cause for confidence.
    Dr. Chu should be ashamed of himself for such obfuscation.
    If he’s not scared, he should be.
    Citizens deserve the truth about the dangers we face.
    As I stated in testimony at the White House in 1980 (before we knew about Climate Change) alternatives like wind, solar and other renewables, not nuclear, are the path to U.S. jobs and energy independence.
    Take a drive down Indiana’s I-65 to Indy and see what wind power can do.
    That’s our energy future, not nuclear.
    No Nukes!
    -Mike Olszanski,
    Past Environmental Chair (1977-1982), United Steelworkers of America District 31

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