Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Listening to Earthquakes



Note:  This piece was written before the arrival of Hurricane Irene, and I haven't taken the trouble to update it.  The reader can easily interpolate the appropriate additional warnings and messages.

In 1638, the fledgling colony of Plymouth was struck by “a great & fearfull earthquake."  To the chastened Pilgrims, shaken but unharmed, the quake sent a powerful message: it echoed the discord within the community, “as if the Lord would herby shew the signes of his displeasure, in their shaking a peeces & removals one from an other,” in the words of its governor, William Bradford.

In 1727, an even greater earthquake shook the eastern seaboard, toppling scores of houses but again, as in 1638, claiming no lives.  The Rev. Cotton Mather interpreted the event as a decisive wakeup call from God:  “In the Works, wherein the glorious GOD goes out of the Ordinary Road,…His Voice becomes very Notable; and most inexcusable are they who Regard not the Works of the Lord…”

It does not require a Cotton Mather to interpret the lessons of Tuesday’s earthquake.  For me, the most crucial of them relate to the potential man-made disasters we have contrived for ourselves in the form of nuclear power.

Last spring’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan made plain the vulnerability of nuclear reactors, and reminded us what nuclear power is: using toxic and explosive radioactive material to boil water to turn a turbine that powers a generator which produces electricity, creating as a by-product even more deadly, often weapons-grade, radioactive waste that will remain dangerous for tens of thousands of years. 

The ongoing tragedy of the Fukushima disaster—which as I write could still produce a global radiological catastrophe—demonstrated the inherent peril of these devices.  But Japan’s distance from us, and its location in one of the most earthquake-prone regions on earth, may have lulled Americans into the sense that “it can’t happen here.” 

If so, the Virginia earthquake should have laid that fantasy to rest.  Virginia is in the middle of a tectonic plate, not at the unstable edge.  The state has only once in recorded history, over a century ago, experienced a quake of such magnitude.  Unlike California’s Diablo Canyon reactor, built directly on a geological fault, Mineral, Virginia’s North Anna construction site, just 11 miles from the epicenter, had a clean seismic bill of health—until last August, when researchers for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, rated the plant the the seventh most likely to sustain core damage from an earthquake,

The North Anna complex is only 82 miles from Washington, well within the range of a radioactive plume in the event of a meltdown. But that danger pales beside the number one most threatened: Buchanan, New York’s Indian Point Plant, a mere 25 miles from New York City.   The NRC rates the likelihood of a core meltdown from an earthquake at Indian Point as one in 10,000. 

By comparison, as MSNBC’s Bill Dedman observes, one’s chance of winning $10,000 in a multistate Powerball lottery is one in 723,145.[1]

The most powerful earthquake ever to hit the eastern United States (magnitude 7.7 on the Richter scale) occurred 200 years ago centered on New Madrid, MO.  It affected 50,000 square miles, caused the Mississippi to run backwards for a time, and made church bells ring in Boston.  In 1811, the affected region was only sparsely settled; today, it contains more than 15 million people, and fifteen nuclear power plants.  Last May, the federal government staged an exercise designed to model the effects of a New Madrid-scale quake today.  The results remain classified.  But Paul Stockton, the deputy defense secretary in charge of homeland security, described the impact of such a quake as “so much bigger than anything we’ve faced—way beyond Hurricane Katrina.” 

If they were alive today, William Bradford and Cotton Mather would view the Virginia earthquake, coming on the heels of Fukushima, as the clearest possible divine warning to America, and would consider it blasphemous folly for us to disregard it:  “Indeed there is this Argument for hearkening to the Voice of our GOD, that if we do it not, we provoke Him to Render His Rebukes in Flames of Fire unto us.” 

Oh, and the plant the NRC ranked as the second most threatened by earthquakes?  The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth.  One can only imagine what the Pilgrim Fathers would think about that.


[1] Bill Dedman, “What are the odds? US nuke plants ranked by quake risk,” MSNBC.com website, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42103936/, Mar. 27, 2011 (accessed August 24, 2011).


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