March 12th, 2011
07:54 AM ET

Expert: Typical nuke plants can take a 10,000-year quake

Many questions remained about Saturday’s explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan. In general, these kinds of facilities are among the most carefully designed and heavily scrutinized structures in the world, said a top civil engineer.

Ron Hamburger, who travels the world studying earthquake-damaged buildings and other structures, says a typical nuclear power plant is designed to withstand earthquakes of the magnitude that only occurs once every 10,000 years.

Friday’s quake was the most powerful to hit the island nation in recorded history, and the tsunami it unleashed traveled across the Pacific Ocean. Reports from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy estimated the 8.9-magnitude quake shifted the entire planet on its axis by nearly 4 inches (10 centimeters).

Engineers typically design nuclear facilities with very thick walls. “It’s not unusual for the reinforced concrete walls of these structures to be between 3 and 6 feet thick,” Hamburger said Friday before reports surfaced about the Japanese blast. “The reason the walls are that thick is not so much for structural strength, but rather because they use the concrete in part to shield any possible radiation.”

Typically, equipment that’s most critical to safety at these plants has been rigorously tested for earthquake resiliency on so-called “shaking tables.” The equipment being tested – pumps, control valves and electric motors - is attached to the shaking tables - which measure as large as 20 feet by 20 feet. Computers use data from past earthquakes to move the table and the equipment up and down and side-to-side to closely simulate movement from actual quakes.

“The entire design and testing process of these nuclear facilities is designed to withstand the earthquake, shut down safely and contain any radiation hazards,” Hamburger said.

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Filed under: Earthquake • Nuclear • Tsunami
soundoff (121 Responses)
  1. Reality

    How much did the nuclear power industry lobby pay CNN for this headline?

    March 12, 2011 at 8:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Nuclear Engineer student

      Nuclear power plants are much safer then petroleum.. genius.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
    • Stymie

      He is correct not to trust the media, Genius.

      March 12, 2011 at 10:03 am | Report abuse |
    • Spcemnky

      The nuclear industry paid nothing i can assure you. This article is the most accurate report I have seen on this subject since the earthquake. The is a reason that it takes the NRC years to agree to give a license to build new plants to a utility. The review and testing required of the design and safety systems is extremely through. I know many people are going to use this to say "Well it leaking" but I only ask you do more research from places like INPO and the NRC prior to freakiing out.

      March 12, 2011 at 10:06 am | Report abuse |

      The video shows the plant discharging _A VERY HIGH VOLUME OF WATER_. This seems to indicate that strong attempts are being made to cool the reactor(s). Unfortunately there is no date / time stamp on the video clip as shown by CNN so it is hard to tell if we are seeing stock footage from some other period.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:21 am | Report abuse |
    • saabstories

      It's not that CNN is corrupt but uneducated... Like John Steinbeck once wrote "The best lie is the truth", this article narrowly focuses on a few facts and lets the reader reach some unsubstantiated conclusions.

      What the article doesn't discuss, through no fault of CNN, is the way the components are supported and how those supports are inspected are more important than any individual component.

      It also doesn't discuss that the collateral impact of an earthquake causing a beyond design basis tidal surge was not evaluated in it's earthquake design.

      The devil is always in the details.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
    • MannyHM

      I have the same concern. Experts can hide the truth better than non-experts. We'll wait for the analysis on this one.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:42 am | Report abuse |
    • TokyoSyndrome

      BEETHOVIN, there was an explosion at the plant:You're not seeing water vapor, you're seeing smoke.


      March 12, 2011 at 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Idaho Tom


      How much money was wasted on your education? Probably more than what you suspect for the Nuclear Industry paid to lobby for this "advertisement". Nuclear Power Plants (NPP) are THE toughest, most rigorously built man-made structure on earth. This is done to pretty much take any scenario. The containment structure, which is about 1-2 meters thick and the steel pressure vessel which is 10-20 cm thick can take a airliner to strike, but still withstand the blast.

      The fact and reality is this: Nuclear Power Plants (NPP) are like hard working minorities from the 70's in America, who goes through many prejudice hate comments where people will not admit their contribution and hard-work no-matter what. But they still do their best. Did you know? That since the 1970's, the U.S hasn't built a single reactor, but still, the national electricity contribution of nuclear energy has stayed at roughly 20%? If you had any descent education, you should understand the significance of this number and significance of nuclear reactors.

      March 12, 2011 at 2:31 pm | Report abuse |
    • Morningstar*

      I think the reportage on CNN should be much more critical.
      1.) Before the earthquake there were already problems with the plant.
      Fukushima 1 is 40 years old and was scheduled to shut down at the end of this month
      2.) In 1967 General Electric oversaw the construction work ( source: World Nuclear Association)
      3.) Fukushima 1 is the oldest of the 6 reactors.
      4.) How much has GE paid CNN and influences the reportage ?
      5.) How much more evidence do you need in order to see that nuclear energy is clearly a relict of the last century?
      6.) In the last years there have been many unfortunate incidents with Fukushimi.
      7.) TEPCO, the plant's servicing company, has been accused of faking the temperature data of the cooling tower (1985 + 1988) and trying to conceal cracks in the steel reactor protection.
      8.) In 2002 the chief executive and four other TEPCO executives resigned.
      9.) The Fukushima 1 incident is very serious and obviously played down.

      March 12, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • srgray

      This is the worst news coverage I haven't seen a expert on nuclear power yet,reporters know nothing about the subject.

      March 12, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Report abuse |
    • MikefromWV

      These walls may be 3 to 6 feet thick, but there was no mention in the article about the quality of the concrete in the walls. Might there be a problem with shoddy construction materials? It isn't as if we haven't heard about shoddy construction materials being used before in various types of construction.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Report abuse |
  2. jeff

    Well that's dumb. This article is factual and not a conspiracy.

    March 12, 2011 at 9:15 am | Report abuse |
  3. Offtopic

    Well Mr. Hamburger, it's leaking. .

    March 12, 2011 at 9:52 am | Report abuse |
    • Candid One

      The article doesn't say that the containment vessel is leaking. Radiation is detected in the area of the plant buildings. This can have many alternative sources within a complex that has to retain all related radioactive materials on the grounds.

      March 12, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Report abuse |
  4. LoL

    How come Europe doesn't have any problems with their plants? Because their design super plants.........................

    March 12, 2011 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
    • Hrmm

      The earthquakes in EU don't compare to the ring of fire around the Pacific.

      March 12, 2011 at 10:18 am | Report abuse |
    • pixelvt

      You might have some credibility if you could write (and likely speak) English

      March 12, 2011 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
    • CJ

      Because the nuclear plants in the EU aren't on a island that recently shifted 2.4 meters in a magnitude 8.9 earthquake and had a tsunami wash over it.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Kathryn Susbauer

      Europe does not have as active as ring of fire. with so many fault lines and different plates.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • ncb1397

      Wow, just wow. Ever hear of Chernobyl?

      March 12, 2011 at 10:12 pm | Report abuse |
  5. David

    The article is correct but leaves out something very important. the plants are indeed DESIGNED to withstand an earthquake. But only an earthquake is capable of testing that design. No way to know if the design works until its tested. so we don't know for sure they will be safe. I believe the engineers did all they could do to create the safest design, but there are many cases of best design practices that failed real life tests.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:04 am | Report abuse |
  6. Kelly Range

    Instead of talking to an so called expert (president of some investment co. who has written book for money) why don't you get someone who has worked in the nuclear generation field. I was an SRO at a plant here in the US and nobody has said whether all the control rods are in the core or not! It makes great difference on how you try to cool down the reactor. In regards to the Cesium; in a BWR reactor there could be very small leakers in the fuel rods themselves which is not good but it does happen during the course of a generating cycle. That being said, when a safety relief valve is opened in the process of cooling down with small leakers the Cesium will show up in small amounts.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
    • john

      As other reports indicated, the area reactors had about a 1 minute warning due to the Earthquake detection system (detecting earthquake P waves) in place on the island before the shock wave hit. They were supposed to automatically shut down (SCRAM) on receipt of that signal, so the rods should have been on the bottom when the primary shock wave hit. The catastrophic failure of the containment vessel is disturbing based on the overpressure ratings of those buildings, meaning that the steam generation rate is very significant.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
    • Wzrd1

      John, I don't see a failure of the containment vessel, but of the building, which COULD have been caused by a hydrogen explosion blowing out a pump or line.
      I suspect we'll have to wait and see how severe it truly is.

      March 12, 2011 at 7:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. MH

    Fukushima is a GE Mark I BWR built in 1971.. you cant really compare them to modern plants..

    March 12, 2011 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
    • Charlie

      Actually, Fukushima 1 is a BWR 3 and Fukushima 2 is a BWR 4. They likely have a Mk 1 containment.

      March 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Offtopic

    I'm sure the safety standards are very stringent. Just a simple fact. Regardless of thier efforts, they leak.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:11 am | Report abuse |
  9. Lisa

    Which is why I say they are telling us and we are hearing. Some info I think is not known to anyone for sure as we watch to see how this unfolds. One thing which is clear is clear up is needed so do donate if you can and want

    March 12, 2011 at 10:12 am | Report abuse |
  10. Lisa

    Sorry think I've posted this to the wrong page, my iPad has gone mad. Apologies

    March 12, 2011 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
  11. B2L

    Ron Hamburger. He sounds delicious.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
  12. 1middleaged

    Like it or not – NUCLEAR is not the answer – SOLAR IS THE ANSWER!

    March 12, 2011 at 10:17 am | Report abuse |
    • NSSS

      At 5 acres of solar panels per megawatt, you need 5,000 acres of solar panels to equal 1,000 megawatts of electricity. Those solar panels only work at peak power levels during the sunny times, so, on average, they only put out about 25% of their rated capacity. That means you really need 20,000 acres of solar panels to generate 1,000 megwatts of electricity per hour, on average. 20,000 acres is 31.25 square miles.

      March 12, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
    • pixelvt


      March 12, 2011 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Mike

      You do know that the sun is a thermonuclear reactor, don't you? And that some day it will become a red giant and engulf the earth, if it hasn't already boiled away the oceans. So what you're really saying is solar power is better in the short term as long as it isn't in your back yard!

      March 12, 2011 at 1:59 pm | Report abuse |
    • Candid One

      Every year, skin cancer kills more people than have ever died from nuclear plant incidents–and atomic bomb explosions combined.

      March 12, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Evilsushi

      You do realize that is a 40+ year old design. Modern designed reactors have a 0% chance of meltdown due to changes in design. One example is a Traveling Wave Reactor. One other thing is that they actually consume nuclear waste not produce it. Very Clean. With the modern designed reactors we could supply the entire worlds energy production at current US levels for the next 300 years with just the Waste that has been created by the legacy reactors and Nuclear weapons. Nuclear technology is the future not the Past!

      March 12, 2011 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Frank

      Please point me to solar that can act as base load, working at night and during times when it's cloudy for 28 days in a month.

      March 13, 2011 at 12:53 am | Report abuse |
  13. djd007

    Some of us are just hoping that we don't have another Chernobyl on our hands. Granted the Chernobyl accident was caused by a test shutdown run that wasn't handled properly; but the bigger difference between that explosion and one that could occur here is Chernobyl was inland and most of the fallout was on the ground. Imagine the devistation if there was fallout distributed in the Pacific Ocean. Hopefully it doesn't happen and they can get the core cooled down.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
    • don

      Remember most of these facilites were designed before seatbelts were standard equipment.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Charlie

      Another HUGE difference is that Chernobyl did not have a containment building, so there was nothing to contain the spread of radiation.

      March 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Patrick

      From what I've read, it would be BETTER if the fallout was distributed in the ocean as the water would dilute the radiation to safe levels. This was noted as a reason for building so many reactors near the sea, in general.

      March 13, 2011 at 1:07 am | Report abuse |
  14. Dreamer96

    It sounds to me like they released steam from the cooling system and reactor inside the containment building to contain any radiation. These buildings are designed to handle very high pressures. Unfortunately this steam probably contained hydrogen gas, which built up under the ceiling and finally exploded. There is alot they don't want to tell us yet.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Guru

      The news is following the government propaganda, hook line and sinker. The design (1971) was good at the time, but 40 years ago, well thats a long time for a structure to sit there. They have back up on top of back up, so we are not beig told very much. Somethig doesn't add up. The story just keeps escalating, plane of coolant from US, come on, primary coolant is DI water, if you lose that, back up is fresh water, if you have no fresh water your last resort is sea water..... This reactor was badly damaged in the earth quake, secondary damage from the wave(this thig is on the shore line right) knocked out the back up power systems. Now that the contaiment building is gone, you got a chernobal. Two options left, dilution(pump sea water on to it ad let it run off in to the ocean) or dumps sand and gravel from helicpters on to the open core.

      March 12, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Dreamer96

      Well I don't think it's Chernobyl yet. In Chernobyl the core was exposed, ( reactor dome itself was blown open), and the rod were not all the way in. The reactor core was still running, and it was exposred to the air, not covered by any coolant. That is not the situation here so far. The rods were put back in and the metal core dome is intact, and still covered by some coolant.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
    • rob

      There was no containment dome at Chernobyl. There is no equivalency between this and Chernobyl.

      March 12, 2011 at 8:01 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Yeah but...

    Thirty years after something is built, design matters a lot less than maintenance. Tokyo Electric has a long history of falsifying safety and inspection records and concealing incidents.

    March 12, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
    • Bazoing

      So does the plant here near San Luis Obispo, CA, have a history of negative reports. Big money speaks louder than common sense. This guy talks like the earthquake/tsunami and the nuclear problem are separate things. The first caused the second. What about war? Are its effects on nuclear plants and the effect of that going to be separate things? There is plenty of seismic potential here in SLO. Is this "expert" trying to amply that this is a 10,000 year event? If so I am sooo glad to hear it!

      March 13, 2011 at 3:16 am | Report abuse |
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