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. Realist

    The part i don't like is the 1 in 10,000 years quake, especially as we have had 5 above 8.9 in the last 50 years! Another report stated that the reactors were designed to handle a 7.1 quake, well these seems be be happening more and more frequently recently.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Nicole

    I am watching CNN and I cant help but to think about the South Park Episode where the Commentator is saying "We are not there but we are reporting cannibalism in the streets" . Can we please keep it to the facts, it does not help to interview Anti Nuclear or Pro Nuclear Zealots during the emergency, they are just going to use it to push their agenda.

    March 12, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
  3. ThatWoman

    I don't know why I'm still shocked at how dumb people can be. This is why those of us smart kids always hated 'group work' in elementary school, because the dumb kids always held us back or freeloaded. Now you're all grown up, still thinking you're not dumb, still self-assured (for no good reason) and able to vote, raise children, buy property, pay your internet bill and post comments on articles. Just keep your uninformed opinion to yourself. I'll trust the nuclear scientists' opinions over yours, kay?

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

      Assuming intellectual superiority is never smart, especially if someone else has the brains to "freeload" off of your hard work.

      March 12, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      Well said. That's the first sensible post I've seen here yet.

      March 12, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Jazz

    A smart person all questions, lady

    March 12, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  5. JMan

    Distributed Solar on rooftops is the answer...in the future people will create their own energy

    March 12, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jazz

    I'm all for that

    March 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Richard

    Seems to me like quakes of this magnitude are occurring more than once every 10,000 years..

    March 12, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Report abuse |
  8. jeffrye

    It must be an awful feeling working at that nuke plant. I work at one in Canada and while we use a different technology, it would still be very chaotic relying on safety systems designed in the 70's. From what I can glean from reports, they are now using last ditch efforts to cool the reactor vessel (sea water). Normally, demineralised water is used as it is least corrosive to the pipework and vessels. The cooling pumps that circulated the demin coolling water lost power, possibly due to ground faults caused by the tsunami. The backup diesel generators were also affected, therefore they may have had a limited amount of time on battery (hours). A powerful explosion resulted from the build up of heat withing the reactor vessel due to a loss of cooling and an inability to bleed off steam from the boiling coolant which is demin light water as I mentioned. The fact that they are now handing out Potassium Iodide pills means they are concerned the fuel is going to get so hot that it will melt the metal containing it, hence a meltdown. The potassium iodide pills are given to saturate the thyroid glands of people who could be exposed so they do not receive an uptake of the radioactive iodides from the failed fuel.
    Lets all hope for the best....

    March 12, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Philip

    @Dreamer 96...what gave you that impression? Really, those domes cannot contain that much pressure. Besides drilling with compressed air, we also use our compressors to test pipelines and nuclear powerplant domes. Those domes can't take much. (pressure)

    March 12, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dreamer96

      Yes I was wrong, the domes are suppose to handle 200 psi. from the inside. What gets me is the Missile sheild or containment dome is suppose to with stand an airplane crashing into it from the outside.

      March 12, 2011 at 2:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dreamer96

      You know another thing that gets me is these plants were built during the cold war and were suppose to be designed to survive a Nuclear blast wave. Not a direct hit, but something farily close, a nearby city. This was suppose to keep the reactors from blowning up after an attack, maybe even operate soon after. But they can only handle 200 spi from the inside. Curious it's it.

      March 12, 2011 at 3:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dreamer96

      Boy was I wrong, A 200 psi limit is definitely enough protection to cover a nuclear blast wave. 50 psi is enough to handle a fairly close explosion. It's interesting to note that just 5 psi is enough to flatten a house.

      March 12, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
  10. banasy

    Wow, all of this is really scaring the s*h*i*t out of me...such power! Lord help us...the more I learn, the scarier it gets...

    March 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • joey

      Don't worry too much banasy. We've had this power for a while now, and the number of problems have been few. Hopefully, as time goes on, danger will decrease

      March 12, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jazz

    @ Banasy , then dont read the story I just saw about the AL-JAZEERA cameraman blog third story down on the list I believe

    March 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Report abuse |
  12. MAC ADAM

    Pollution is something we all need ,nuclear should not be on this beautiful planet ,end of subject

    March 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
  13. joey

    Nuclear reactors are built to be incredibly safe. They ARE in fact the most sturdy buildings on the planet (possibly withh the exception of certain silos and bunkers). They're designed to take more pounding than anything else, which is why this partial meltdown is so surprising. The building was supposed to be able to take an earthquake like this. There's no conspiracy here, but there is a disaster. Unfortunately, fission reactors are inherently unstable (thus there is a good argument against them). THis is why so many precautions are taken. They plan for every scenario. It's weird that this is going so wrong. Hopefully soon we can move on to fusion reactors (so much saferr). lol like theres no more risk with fusion reactors than with conventional power plants. alas the technology is still out of reach. I wish the rescue and containment crews luck, as well as the families that need to evacuate. godspeed

    March 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Question Mark

    The headline almost suggests the building could last a earthquake that continues for 10,000 years. Too many people don't actually read the article for details define it as "a typical nuclear power plant is designed to withstand earthquakes of the magnitude that only occurs once every 10,000 years." What magnitude? Be specific. Is the magnitude of the one they just experienced?

    March 12, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Mark

    TokyoSyndrome, this was a STEAM explosion, so the other poster is right, it's water vapor.

    March 12, 2011 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
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