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Fukishima: Could it happen here?

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant in Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo County, CA
Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power plant in Avila Beach, San Luis Obispo County, CAdirtsailor2003 on Flickr

Still bobbing in the wake of the recent nuclear disaster on Japan’s coast six months ago, are we justified to worry something similar could occur here in the U.S.?

Yes, and it may be in the Bay Area’s backyard, in fact. A PG&E-owned nuclear power plant sits a couple hundred yards from the Shoreline fault in Diablo Canyon in California’s central valley, and the aftereffects of an earthquake on the plant are still undetermined.

According to PG&E spokesman Paul Flake, the plant is built to sustain a 7.5 quake, while the largest quake projected for the Shoreline fault is magnitude 6.5. But it could be what we are not prepared for that will take us by catastrophic surprise. Channel 7 News interviewed Susan Hough, a renowned seismologist based in Southern California, after a recent talk on earthquake prediction.

"Japan was waiting for an earthquake they'd already named in advance, close to Tokyo, and wham they get blindsided by a fault that they didn't think was as dangerous," she said on April 28 2011.

Shoreline fault was only discovered in 2008 by the energy company with the help of the USGS, so it is possible there are more undiscovered faults nearby that could shake the plant off its foundation.

But don’t believe everything you hear. Most of what the media puts out is misinformed fear mongering, said Professor Fred Mettler at a talk on the UC San Francisco Parnassus campus. In no way will the United States, or Japan for that matter, have an equally disastrous event as Chernobyl, nuclear disaster’s poster child. Having been to the Russian site after the core meltdown, Professor Mettler impresses that he found the Russian engineers knew very little about nuclear containment in 1980 and pushed their unprotected core too far.

A plant’s susceptibility to meltdown or leak is based on what material it is enclosed with, where it stores the spent fuel, and its ability to shut off operations quickly. The Diablo Canyon Reactor is surrounded by concrete, a material that won’t melt in the event of the core becoming unstable. And the spent fuel is stored away from the reactor, unlike at Fukishima where they are located nearby, making the problems as grave as they are.

In the unfortunate event of a meltdown, the geography near the Diablo Canyon plant would create a disadvantage. Rather than blowing out to sea, the nuclear fallout “would likely go (northeast) over land,” said Mettler.

Many scientists, the government and the energy utilities uphold the claim that nuclear meltdown could never happen in the United States. But while radioactive contamination is being found in the food crops and in the ocean nearby Fukishima, citizens surrounding Diablo Canyon remain concerned and the plant's renewal permit on hold.

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