Over the Hill

Despite our efforts, planet retains the element of surprise

Everybody’s heard about the nuclear power plant at Fukushima, Japan. It partially melted down after being pounded March 11 by a magnitude-9 earthquake and a tsunami. It probably made most of us in San Luis Obispo County think about our own Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

I thought even harder about Diablo Canyon after getting email from a Japanese friend. He is Toshio Fukuhara, who in 1974 was an A.F.S. exchange student at Paso Robles High School. He’s now a businessman with international clients.

In his email, he criticized the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the ruined nuclear power plant. He said, “For the first few days, TEPCO kept rejecting all the expert assistance from overseas until they gave up, and it was too late.”

He said, “TEPCO kept saying what had happened was beyond their expectations.”

He said the region of Japan that the quake and tsunami devastated was prepared to withstand a magnitude-7 earthquake lasting less than a minute. What it actually got, he said, were three consecutive magnitude-9 earthquakes lasting a total of six minutes.

The region had also been prepared, he said, for a 33-foot high tsunami but the one they actually got was up to 126 feet high.

That’s incredibly high. Maybe it reached that height when it squeezed between two ridges or bluffs. But unquestionably the quake and tsunami went far beyond TEPCO’s “expectations.”

PG&E owns the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. It probably didn’t want us folks around here worrying about the Japanese plant’s crisis. So, PG&E issued this statement: “Diablo Canyon power plant was built to withstand the largest credible earthquake that could potentially result from nearby faults.”

That sounds to me like PG&E’s “expectations,” and expectations were what the March 11 quake in Japan decisively exceeded.

So, what are the earthquake expectations for Diablo Canyon? Well, an article in the March 15 Tribune said an assortment of experts and agencies expect the biggest quake that can be expected near Diablo Canyon would be magnitude 6.5.

The article also said the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is designed to withstand a magnitude-7.5 quake. So I guess we’re supposed to expect the plant to easily withstand any and all quakes from the known, nearby faults. But I’m not sure what they mean by nearby. The fault that let go March 11 was 109 miles from Fukushima and almost 20 miles down.

There is, however, one expectation we can positively be certain of — Mother Earth has many more surprises for us.

Reach Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.