In October 2008, the Voice profiled Klaus Jacob, Columbia University’s expert on urban environmental disasters. In that story, we examined how the Ivy League school had ignored warnings by its own expert about expanding into areas subject to flooding because of climate change.
Today we talked with Jacob about the Japan earthquake and about worst-case scenarios that could take place more close to home, including the prospects for nuclear-meltdown at the Indian Point nuclear power plant, located just 38 miles north of New York City, which the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has agreed to make a top priority in a review of seismic risk to plants across the country.
We saw you on CNN talking with Eliot Spitzer about the Japan earthquake. So, tell us again, how does the water in the tsunami get so high?
It starts at the source. So if the source region where the earthquake occurs deforms the ocean floor, it transfers the associated energy into the entire water column above. This tsunami starts to propagate. When a tsunami travels across the deep ocean, its height is almost imperceptible. It can’t be seen except on satellite images. But as the ocean shallows, the tsunami energy gets wedged into a much narrower cross section. Basically, the same energy has to go through a needle’s eye. So the only way it can compensate
for having a smaller cross section to go through, is by gaining height. What was only a foot in the ocean can become 20-30 feet high.
Does all that force kill a lot of marine life?
No, that’s a minor effect. The biggest environmental effect is the backwash. When water comes back from the land, and picks up all the man-made toxins and oil and chemicals. It’s toxic stuff.
A couple of years ago, we profiled you in a cover story about Columbia University’s seeming unwillingness to prepare for a global-warming related disaster in relation to its expansion plans into West Harlem. In the Japan earthquake, a lot of people here are talking about how they could have better prepared for worst-case scenarios. Are we prepared to handle our own?
First I’ll talk about Japan and then I’ll get to us. Much of the seismic assessment for nuclear power plants is 40 years old, because that’s the age of the plant. Forty years ago, the state of knowledge was fairly simple compared to what it is now. Then, they thought that Fukushima was one of the safest areas of Japan and the shaking level was moderate compared to other parts of Japan. They only had a record that stemmed back 400 years. So earth scientists and seismologists, asked, how can we extend the record beyond 400
years? And when they did, they found, in the past 3,000 years, three events that are comparable to what has happened just now. So the recurrence period for events of the size we have seen in 2011 is roughly once every 1,000 years. When that information was published — I think about a decade or so ago — it clearly created some concern. But it really didn’t go through the process, in which high-level decision-makers were properly informed and asked to consider the new information. And that is of great concern, that there is not a process in place in places like Japan, a process that systematically scans and monitors the scientific information that is being gathered, from a building and zoning
perspective, from a land use perspective, you name it. So that is a failure. And this event is not the first such event in Japan. You may remember, I think it was in 2008, that another nuclear power plant in Japan, which was also operated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, experienced a magnitude 6.6 — less than a seven. It caused some minor damage, some minor radioactivity was released at the time, and some plants were shut down. One hopes that this experience would have led to an overall review of the seismic implications for nuclear power.
What happened to that plant?
I think it’s still shut down for repairs and retrofit.
And what about the United States?
All power plants east of the Rocky Mountains were designed around the sixties. Sometimes they had preliminary licenses and the final licenses were given in the seventies. And those designs were based on on the ground motion-shaking characteristics from the areas in the United States for which strong motion data was available, from the Western United States, largely California. And so the shape of those design spectra, as they are called, that give the level of shaking as a function of the frequency were appropriate for the Western, but not the Eastern U.S. Western Earthquakes produce slow shaking at one hertz that goes around once a second. The 10-Hertz motions would be rattling. Five to ten Hertz would be –RRRRRRR !!! Now, these higher frequencies, around 5-10 Hertz, were totally underestimated for the Eastern U.S. because in the Western United States, the ground motion at the high frequencies are being absorbed by the cracks and fault lines in the earth. The Western United States crust behaves like a car’s windshield, with many cracks in it. It’s hard to see through it. The Eastern crust acts like a clear windshield, so the high frequencies, seismically, travel a long distance without becoming smaller. Also these higher frequencies get excited by a relatively moderate earthquake.
I wanted to talk to you about the Indian Point nuclear power facility, which is located 38 miles from New York City and supplies 20-25 percent of our power.
Starting 20 years into the lifetime of those power plants, this information came to light. That the East Coast has a lot of high frequency seismic energy. And it started to create concern to the point where the Nuclear Regulatory Commission made new regulations for newly built power plants that would have to take these things into account. But it also made risk assessments for the existing power plants. One of these, MSNBC got hold of and published on their website about two weeks ago, after the Japan earthquake. It turns out that Indian Point Power Plant number three — there were originally three plants at the site, and they used to have different operators — ranks as the most seismically risky nuclear power plant in the United States. Not a plant in California, not anywhere else. Indian Point.
The risk is measured by the annual probability of damage to the reactor’s core, which is what one would like to avoid because it could cause a meltdown. The probability for an earthquake to produce such core damage at Indian Point is roughly one in ten thousand, in any given year. The older estimate, from 1989, was one chance in 17,241 years. So it’s a 72 percent increase between 1989 and the new estimate in 2008.
One in ten thousand still seems pretty unlikely, right?
That is your assessment (laugh). If you have only a one in a million chance to win the New York lottery, why do you buy a ticket?
I know when I buy the lottery ticket that it’s irrational. But I don’t expect nature to be that irrational.
Nature doesn’t act irrationally or rationally. Nature just acts. We’re the ones who are irrational. Actually, the chance is very high. There was an interesting report some time ago by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It carries the title, ‘Chernobyl on the Hudson.” And we know what that means. It tried to quantify the health effects.
Governor Andrew Cuomo says he wants to shut down Indian Point — I’m guessing you think that’s a good idea.
I certainly think, that given its highest risk amongst all power plants in the US, that, by 2015, when it ends its license, by then, it should be shut down. That is my personal assessment. And the relicensing process that is currently underway, for which Entergy applied to be extended for another 20 years, should not be granted. New York has to make other arrangements to get its power.
How will we do that?
The problem is not how to get the power. It’s how to get it down to New York. That’s why additional power lines are so essential. It will be very difficult to shut down Indian Point before those solutions to bring power into the New York metropolitan area have been resolved. So I think that, perhaps reluctantly, we should accept the risk for another two or three years. And I guess we have to hold our breath that nothing happens in between.
Why not just retrofit the plant so that it can withstand greater impact?
The costs to retrofit it to the seismic requirements would be exorbitant. It would cost probably a billion dollars.
So, it’s cheaper to shut it down and find a new way to bring power to the city.
Yes, to spend tens or hundreds of millions is cheaper than billions. And they still would be old power plants. It’s like an old car. How much do you want to to spend to fix an old car?