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Japan Quake Tests Nuclear Nerves

Prepared by: Toni Johnson
July 24, 2007

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Japanese officials agreed to work with UN inspectors after a powerful earthquake shut down the country’s largest nuclear plant (Reuters) and raised fresh concerns about its nuclear sector (IHT). The earthquake caused radioactive spills and other problems reportedly compounded by employee error. “All fifty-five (Japanese nuclear plants) have this kind of vulnerability,” a Kobe University seismologist told USA Today.

The incident follows last year’s order from a judge to shut down Japan’s second-largest plant because it was not earthquake ready. A series of other high-profile nuclear accidents (BBC), including in 1999 and 2004 (CNN), create a growing quandary for Japan—the world’s third-largest consumer of nuclear power behind the United States and France. Environmental advocates were quick to assert that the latest incident means nuclear power is unsafe (IPS).

Japan is not the only country in the world that has built nuclear power plants on or near fault lines. The Philippine government pays $155,000 a day in interest on a nuclear facility never put into operation because it was built near major fault lines (AFP). Energy-starved Armenia continues to run its Metsamor nuclear plant despite a nearby fault line and the safety concerns of European Union and U.S. officials. A 1988 quake in the region killed twenty-five thousand people. In the United States, two watchdog groups want to close a Michigan nuclear plant, which they believe fails to adhere to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s earthquake safety regulations for waste handling (AP). Concerns about earthquakes also threaten U.S. plans to build a nuclear waste repository (Las Vegas Sun) in Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

After the devastating quake in the city of Bam in late 2003, Iranian democracy activist Haydar Akbari questioned the sensibility of building a nuclear power plant in Iran’s city of Bushehr, which was destroyed by earthquakes (SFChron) in 1877, 1911, and 1962. A UPI article says a nuclear accident in Iran could prove devastating to the Gulf region and the world’s oil markets. Iranian officials and the German company that designed the plant—which the United States opposes over weapons-development fears—say it can resist up to a 7.2 magnitude earthquake.

Nuclear power safety has come a long way since the 1986 Chernobyl accident, experts say. In fact, plants in many countries have withstood significant earthquakes. The World Nuclear Association estimates 20 percent of the more than four hundred nuclear reactors worldwide operate in areas of significant seismic activity. Currently, seventy new power reactors are in the planning stages of construction, primarily in Asian countries with fast-growing economies and rapidly rising electricity demand. Another 150 have been proposed—some because greenhouse-gas constraints on coal power have renewed interest in nuclear power in Europe and North America. It is not clear how many of these planned sites are located near fault lines.

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