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Earthquake Unlikely To Trigger Nuclear Disaster In Northwest

OPB | March 17, 2011 10:35 a.m. | Updated: July 17, 2012 1:05 a.m. | Portland, OR

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Earthquake experts say the fault off the Oregon Coast is the “twin” of one in Japan. The Northwest also has nuclear reactors. But as OPB’s Rob Manning reports, Northwest experts say the damage from earthquakes and tsunamis would not trigger nuclear disaster here.


Oregon officials have used the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan to raise earthquake awareness in the Northwest. Nuclear danger has not been part of that discussion, even though the region has a range of nuclear facilities from small test sites to huge generating plants. 

Stephen Frantz inside the control room of Reed College's test reactor

Rob Manning / OPB

Last week’s earthquake and tsunami waves knocked out power to a  nuclear plant in Japan. Fear of meltdowns and radiation releases drove large-scale evacuations. 

Gail Shibley says that’s not a chain of events expected here. She’s the state’s administrator for environmental health. 

Gail Shibley: “It’s probably not of paramount concern. Number one, my understanding is that the nuclear plant in Fukushima, in Japan, is very close to the ocean. That just doesn’t exist here. Certainly, Trojan is upstream in the Columbia.” 

Trojan stopped operating as a nuclear plant in 1992. Portland General Electric officials say the waste on site is double-sealed in steel and concrete containers.  

PGE spokesman Steve Corson says unlike the Japanese reactor, Trojan’s fuel is cooled by the air – without the help of electricity.

Steve Corson: “One of the major problems that they’ve encountered in Japan has been that their backup systems failed for power to provide cooling to the plants. There’s no system like that required for the Trojan storage facility.” 

Corson says if the Trojan site flooded, then water could cool the containers. But Corson says tsunami waves aren’t expected to make it 70 miles upriver. 

Steve Corson: “The general expectation there is that the tsunami would be dissipated by the estuary, by the river itself, before it became a problem for the Trojan site.”

Stephen Frantz agrees that the Trojan site is safe. He worked at Trojan when it was a power plant.

Frantz still works at an active nuclear facility, but it’s a tiny one by comparison. He supervises the test reactor at Portland’s Reed College. It’s the size of a washing machine, and sits at the bottom of a 25-foot water-filled pit.  

Frantz says students and Portlanders would be safe in a big quake.  

Stephen Frantz: “Subduction earthquake would shut us down and destroy us probably, but there would be no release to the environment, no release to the public.” 

That might not seem like it adds up: a nuclear facility would be destroyed, but there’d be no radiation released from the reactor? 

Stephen Frantz: “The worst that would happen, is the building would collapse on it, and it would stay under the water. And even if it’s not under water, the air would cool it. Now, if you’re in direct line of sight, while there’s no water, the radiation levels are elevated —- you’d have to be in the room with the reactor to experience high radiation levels. Even for our worst possible accident, we have no plans to evacuate the college. We would evacuate that room.” 

Oregon State University’s reactor is four times as powerful as Reed’s. But OSU officials say that like Reed’s reactor, the fuel could not melt down. 

They do acknowledge small leaks are possible, but they say those are manageable. 

The region’s biggest nuclear facility is at Washington’s Hanford Nuclear Reservation. The Columbia Generating Station produces about 1,100 megawatts of power – enough for about a million homes.     

Officials say the plant is built to survive a quake substantially larger than any quake federal scientists say is likely to hit eastern Washington. 

Rochelle Olson speaks for Energy Northwest – the company that runs the generating station. Olson says flooding is what undid the Japanese plant. She says the generating station is ready for that, too. 

Rochelle Olson: “It was sited far enough from the Columbia River to avoid any potential flood scenario, and this includes the breeching of the Grand Coulee Dam.”  

The reassurances from experts ring a little hollow to long-time opponents of nuclear power.  

Brian Pasko with the Oregon Sierra Club isn’t worried about the small reactors on college campuses. Big plants like the Columbia station are a different story. 

Brian Pasko: “Energy companies that are claiming that there’s no risk at their facilities, these are coming from the same industry that was claiming the same thing in Japan months ago.”  

Nuclear opponents say the problems in Japan demonstrate that the region’s energy future should prioritize safer power sources, like wind and solar. Industry leaders say nuclear power is already heavily regulated. 

They expect scientists to take a very close look at what happened in Japan.  

And they expect those regulations to get even tighter. 

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