Hard lesson from Japan

Nuclear power is dangerous, but so are coal and oil

The hearts of people around the world are going out to residents of northeastern Japan who were in the path of the tsunami. It is a horrendous disaster.

If there’s a lesson to take from it, and particularly from the near-meltdown of four nuclear reactors, it’s that Mother Nature is stronger than we are. Japan is the most earthquake-ready of countries, and look what happened. All the preparedness in the world can’t stand up to a 9.0-magnitude temblor and the ensuing tsunami.

California has two nuclear power plants, Diablo Canyon and San Onofre, and both are located next to the Pacific Ocean. The former was built to withstand a 7.5-magnitude earthquake, the latter a 7.0 quake. Neither is designed to withstand a tsunami.

There are two significant fault lines near Diablo Canyon that could generate tidal waves, but a tsunami more likely would come from elsewhere—from, say, the Cascadian subduction zone, a 680-mile fault line running 50 miles off the coast from Cape Mendocino north to Vancouver Island. It’s capable of generating a 9.0-magnitude quake that could send 15-foot tidal waves as far south as San Onofre.

There are more than 400 nuclear-power plants in the world. They are a major source of electricity, and also one that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases. But they come fraught with dangerous liabilities, as we’ve seen. In addition, they can be used as the foundation of a nuclear-weapons program such as Iran’s. And we still haven’t figured out what to do with the spent nuclear waste, which has a half-life of thousands of years.

But is nuclear worse than coal, which is heating the planet faster than any other fuel? Or oil, which is fouling our oceans, and requires us to do business with oppressive regimes? It’s hard to say, but it’s not hard to realize that we desperately need a national energy plan that moves us as quickly as possible toward using less energy and getting more of it from renewable sources. Nukes, coal and oil will continue to plague us until we liberate ourselves from them.