Disasters Seventy-four nuclear reactors in tsunami-risk areas

Published 24 September 2012

Researchers have, for the first time, identified those nuclear power plants which are more vulnerable to suffering the effects of a tsunami; in total, twenty-three plants, in which there are seventy-four active nuclear reactors, are located in dangerous areas in east and southeast of Asia

The tsunami in Japan in March 2011 caused a series of breakdowns in disaster-related safety procedures, resulting nuclear disaster. A scientific study headed by Spanish researchers has, for the first time, identified those nuclear power plants which are more vulnerable to suffering the effects of a tsunami. In total, twenty-three plants, in which there are seventy-four active nuclear reactors, are located in dangerous areas in east and southeast of Asia, including Fukushima I.

Tsunamis are synonymous with the destruction of cities and homes, and since the Japanese coast was devastated in March 2011, we now know that they cause nuclear disasters, endangering the safety of the population and pollute the environment. Tsunamis are still difficult to predict, and tsunamis which are potentially likely to cause a nuclear disaster more difficult still, but a team of scientists have assessed “potentially dangerous” areas which are home to completed nuclear plants or those under construction.

A Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) release reports that in the study published in the Natural Hazards, the researchers drew a map of the world’s geographic zones which are more at risk of large tsunamis. Based on this data, twenty-three nuclear power plants with seventy-four reactors have been identified to be located in high risk areas. One of the nuclear power plants located in tsunami-prone areas is Fukushima I.

Out of the twenty-three plants, thirteen, with twenty-nine reactors, are active; another plants, with twenty reactors, are being expanded to house nine additional reactors; and there are seven new plants under construction with sixteen reactors.

We are dealing with the first vision of the global distribution of civil nuclear power plants situated on the coast and exposed to tsunamis,” explained José Manuel Rodríguez-Llanes, coauthor of the study and researcher at the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) of the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. The authors used historical, archaeological, geological, and instrumental records as a base for determining tsunami risk.

Despite the fact that the risk of these natural disasters threatens practically the entire western coast of the American continent, the Spanish/Portuguese Atlantic Coast, and the coast of North Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, and areas of Oceania, areas in South and Southeast Asia are especially at greater risk due to the presence of nuclear power stations.

For Debarati Guha-Sapir, another coauthor of the study and CRED researcher, “the impact of natural disaster is getting worse due to the growing interaction with technological installations.”

China: a nuclear power in the making
Some twenty-seven out of sixty-four nuclear reactors which are currently under construction in the world are found in China. This is an example of the massive nuclear investment of the Asian giant. “The most important fact is that nineteen (two of which are in Taiwan) out of the twenty-seven reactors are being built in areas identified as dangerous,” state the authors of the study.

In the case of Japan, which in March 2011 suffered the consequences of the worse tsunami in its history, there are seven plants with nineteen reactors at risk, one of which is currently under construction. South Korea is now expanding two plants at risk with five reactors. India (two reactors) and Pakistan (one reactor) could also feel the consequences of a tsunami in the plants.

The ghost of Fukushima
“The location of nuclear installations does not only have implications for their host countries but also for the areas which could be affected by radioactive leaks,” said Joaquín Rodríguez-Vidal, lead author of the study and researcher at the Geodynamics and Paleontology Department of the University of Huelva.

According to the study, the lessons of the Fukushima accident should be learned. For the authors, prevention and previous scientific studies are the best tools for avoiding such disasters. “But since the tsunami in 2004 the Indian Ocean region is still to take effective political measures,” warn the researchers.

The Fukushima crisis took place in a highly developed country with one of the highest standards in scientific knowledge and technological infrastructure. “If it had occurred in a country less equipped for dealing with the consequences of catastrophe, the impact would have been a lot more serious for the world at large,” claim the experts.

Rodríguez-Vidal recommends, therefore, that the drafting of more local analyses that consider the seismic amplification of each nuclear power plant and determine the adaptation of installation identified in the study.

— Read more in Joaquin Rodríguez-Vidal et al., “Civil nuclear power at risk of tsunamis,” Natural Hazards 63, no. 2 (September 2012): 1273-78 (DOI: 10.1007/s11069-012-0162-0)