Nuclear safety after quake in California

March 21, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
What happened in Japan is bringing new scrutiny to California's two nuclear power plants. Could they withstand a quake that strong? And what about a tsunami?

State leaders told a Senate committee hearing that California has suffered about $44 million in damage so far from the tsunami and praised local response along the coastline for timely evacuations.

"We've invested in sirens along the coast, we've invested in reverse 911 systems," California Emergency Management Agency spokesperson Mike Dayton said.

But clearly, there are still gaps in California's disaster response. In this earthquake prone state, leaders still do not know how many hospital beds would be available.

"We are committed to making as many beds available as possible and pre-identifying them before a catastrophic event," Dayton said. "In the Bay Area, there is up to 80 percent of some of the hospitals may not be available."

And California has two nuclear plants, one in Orange County, the other along the Central Coast. One expert worries those facilities are not built to withstand a good-sized earthquake.

"Our reactors are in the most seismically active area in the world next to Japan," UC Santa Cruz Nuclear Policy Lecturer Daniel Hirsch said. "Ours are in California and they appear to have been designed for earthquakes less than the faults are capable of nearby."

But managers from the Diablo Canyon Power Plant assured lawmakers their reactors are built to withstand the largest earthquake expected in the region. They also already have a tsunami plan in place, with backup power ready to cool down the cores. In Japan, the backup power washed away.

"Our underground diesel storage tanks are in water tight compartments; they allow us a minimum of seven days electrical power without the need to replenish from outside sources, that was one of the problems at the Fukushima plant," Diablo Canyon Power Plant spokesperson Steve David said.

"What's going on in Japan could happen here, if we don't learn the lesson," Hirsch said.


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