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japan-radiationcheckPhoto - Al Jazeera

How safe is safe and what are our options?

At the end of 2010, a survey in Australia showed that most women there would rather rely on candles than nuclear power and, in the USA, more women than men are concerned about the possibility of radiation from Japan reaching the United States.

Almost half of Australians are against using oil. 87% want wind power and 98% want solar power.

Is it time we all demand that more money is invested in developing new energy sources?


Official advice: don't worry!


The World Nuclear Association reassured us on their website in March 2011
(previously updated January 2011):

Japanese, and most other, nuclear plants are designed to withstand earthquakes, and in the event of major earth movement, to shut down safely...

Nuclear facilities are designed so that earthquakes and other external events will not jeopardise the safety of the plant...

It is estimated that, worldwide, 20% of nuclear reactors are operating in areas of significant seismic activity.

Because of the frequency and magnitude of earthquakes in Japan, particular attention is paid to seismic issues in the siting, design and construction of nuclear power plants....

Nuclear power plants are very robust...

The industry still works hard to minimize the probability of a meltdown accident, but it is now clear that no-one need fear a potential public health catastrophe...

Even if the containment structure that surrounds all modern nuclear plants were ruptured, it would still be highly effective in preventing escape of radioactivity...

Regulatory requirements today are that the effects of any core-melt accident must be confined to the plant itself, without the need to evacuate nearby residents...

The use of nuclear energy for electricity generation can be considered extremely safe...

Even for a nuclear plant situated very close to sea level, the robust sealed containment structure around the reactor itself would prevent any damage to the nuclear part from a tsunami, though other parts of the plant might be damaged.

140,000 evacuated

Following the recent devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Al Jazeera reported:

...about 140,000 people have been told to evacuate areas near the two Fukushima nuclear power plants following Friday's earthquake, said the UN atomic watchdog.


David Leonhardt writes, in the New York Times:

Douglas Almond, a Columbia University economist who has studied the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, is concerned that the Japanese government may not be doing enough to warn pregnant women to leave any areas at risk of radiation exposure. Those areas can be much farther from the nuclear plants than many people realize.

Mr. Almond, in an e-mail, explains:

The fetus may be particularly sensitive to low doses of ionizing radiation, a susceptibility that current public health responses in Japan seem to have overlooked. Evidence comes from a recent study of Chernobyl fallout in Sweden, which experienced comparatively low radiation doses from the accident; indeed radiation levels in Sweden were believed safe at the time...

I’m grateful to Michael Greenstone, an M.I.T. economist who is also director of the Hamilton Project in Washington, for calling this research to my attention. “The point,” Mr. Greenstone says, “is that the Japanese government should be issuing stronger warnings to pregnant women.”

So for how much longer can we afford to rely on the reassurances of 'experts'?

'Low level' leakage in the UK

Only recently, on the 15th February this year, Sellafield Nuclear Power Station in the UK, notorious for its leaks, was in the news again:

Cumbria's Sellafield nuclear plant has been given a formal caution for a radioactive leak.

Environment Agency officials said contaminated liquid ‘in the form of a steady drip’ leaked from a pipe designed to drain condensation from a ventilation duct.

Significant cancer risks for women of all ages

The effect of such leaks are not to be dismissed.

Several studies have shown that those living near mud flats close to nuclear power stations are at an increased risk of cancer, as are those who work at the power stations, and their children.

A study on the effects of the leaks, by Dr. Chris Busby, Representative to the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association on research, concluded:

The results clearly demonstrated a significant cancer risk sea-coast effect... for women of all ages combined. The effect was highly significant.

Staff and children in danger

A study on staff working at the nuclear plant, published in the British Medical Journal, concluded:

The raised incidence of leukaemia, particularly, and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma among children near Sellafield was associated with paternal employment... There are important potential implications for radiobiology and for protection of radiation workers and their children.


logo_bpFollowing the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the focus on oil-drilling with the Gulf oil 'spill', there has been increased discussion as to whether drilling deep into the earth's surface for and extracting millions of barrels of oil a day might actually be destabilising its structure.

The BP Gulf Spill oil rig - Deepwater Horizon

The Deepwater Horizon was a 9-year-old semi-submersible mobile offshore drilling unit, a massive floating, dynamically positioned drilling rig that could operate in waters up to 8,000 feet (2,400 m) deep and drill down to 30,000 feet (9,100 m).

Besides discussions relating to the risk of further 'spills', there are other obvious questions on internet science forums, from the concerned public, such as:

I'm wondering what happens beneath the earth while we keep drilling for oil. If you know that we drill millions of liters a day, what does this do to the mantel of our earth?

And comments such as:

I have reached a basic theory, the earth may work as similar to an engine. Oil may be used both to reduce friction and lower earth temperature, by limiting the friction between the plaques. I am no scientist so I might be completely wrong but also pumping water to a hole of some kind might create a more unstable situation beacause water is heavier but, is it more dense?, if so why do we use oil in so many applications to create materials like glues, roads, etc.

Don't worry, we are told, the drills are just pin-pricks to the earth and can have no negative effect. It doesn't leave holes because the oil seeps through pores in the rock and is replaced by water.

Human-induced earthquakes: Texas, California and Switzerland

usgslogoAn Open File report from the USGS (United States Geological Survey) in 2004, refers to land subsidence induced around oil and gas fields.

Apparently, this is due to an alteration in the state of stress close to faults, as a result of a decline in pore pressure.

Homeowners are financially compensated for subsidence.

Land subsidence can be induced by any one of several different activities that involve large volume extraction of underground resources (water, oil and gas, sulfur, salt). Land loss associated with induced subsidence is actually more common than most people realize, especially where large volumes of fluids are removed from underground formations. This induced subsidence, which is either sub-regional or local in extent, has its greatest impact on flat coastal plains and wetlands near sea level...

Subsidence around the Goose Creek Oil field near Houston, Texas was the first evidence that rapid, large volume extraction of hydrocarbons was capable of causing the ground to sink around the producing wells. The induced subsidence, which was discovered shortly after field development began in 1917, indicated that accelerated withdrawal of oil, gas, and associated water from shallow unconsolidated reservoirs could lower the land elevation, cause minor earthquakes, and activate faults around the periphery of producing fields (Pratt and Johnson, 1926).

In the Gulf Coast region, subsidence induced around large, mature oil and gas fields is also locally concentrated along linear trends that coincide with faults (White and Morton, 1997). Extraction of hydrocarbons and formation water causes a decline in pore pressure within the reservoirs and alters the state of stress near the faults.

Texan residents concerned

In December, 2009, Jeff Carlton wrote in the Huffington Post:

CLEBURNE, Texas — The earth moved here on June 2. It was the first recorded earthquake in this Texas town's 140-year history - but not the last. There have been four small earthquakes since...

The council's solution was to hire a geology consultant to try to answer the question on everyone's mind: Is natural gas drilling - which began in earnest here in 2001...

At issue is a drilling practice called "fracking," in which water is injected into the ground at high pressure to fracture the layers of shale and release natural gas trapped in the rock.

There is no consensus among scientists about whether the practice is contributing to the quakes. But such seismic activity was once rare in Texas and seems to be increasing lately, lending support to the theory that drilling is having a destabilizing effect...

The gas is extracted through a process known as horizontal drilling. A company will drill roughly 5,000 feet to 7,000 feet down and then go horizontally for as much as 4,000 feet or so. Then the fracking begins.

Geothermic Drilling - California and Switzerland

In California, there are similar concerns about 'geothermic drilling'.

In Switzerland, drilling 4.8 km into the earth's crust caused a 3.4 mag earthquake

Seisomologist Katherine Harmon, in June 2009, wrote in the Scientific American:

Already on edge about temblors, northern California locals are eying an expansive new geothermal project proposed by a company called AltaRock that's going to be boring down more than two miles (3.2 kilometers). The area near the town of Anderson Springs—about 90 miles (150 kilometers) north of San Francisco—is home to natural geothermal vents (nicknamed The Geysers by early visitors who saw the steam vents there) and has been exploited for its natural energy-generating capacity for the better part of the last century. Starting in the 1970s, as technology improved, engineers started to crank up the production levels. Small earthquakes began shortly thereafter...

Just a few years ago, a now-infamous geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, which drilled three miles (4.8 kilometers) into Earth's crust, set off a magnitude 3.4 earthquake, rocking the town and shutting the operation down entirely..

Drilling has even been fingered as the cause of a massive 2006 mud volcano in Java, which displaced more than 30,000 people after a gas exploration project went awry.

But will these deep holes—and deep-pocketed investors—trigger the next big one?

'There are some similarities to oil fields,' says scientist

The Scientific American, in the same article, then goes on to interview U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Team seismologist David Oppenheimer.

This is what he says:

We've been monitoring [The Geysers] since 1975. All the earthquakes we see there are [human] induced. When they move production into a new area, earthquakes start there, and when they stop production, the earthquakes stop.

They've been inducing earthquakes since the 1960s, and the largest has been less than a [magnitude] 4.5...

There are some similarities to oil fields. In oil fields for secondary recovery, they inject water into the ground to try to force more oil out. Frequently, though, oil fields aren't located in tectonically active areas...

The more important issue is how big a fracture is—how big an earthquake are they generating. If they intersect an existing fracture, and it's ready to go, they can trigger a bigger earthquake.

For the residents of Anderson Springs, [the lack of] depth is a problem. The reason they feel so many earthquakes is because they're so close to the fractures—about 1.2 miles (two kilometers) above [the fracture]. The farther away or deeper the drilling [is], the less likely they are to feel them.

Here's what we know: You can think about The Geysers—the upper three miles (4.8 kilometers) of crust—as a sponge, and the sponge is wet. Now we're taking fluid out of the sponge, and we're taking heat out of the sponge. When you dry out a sponge, it contracts. The Geysers is contracting. From the data, we can see it pulling in, which means that it's changing the stress field around it.

Surrounding the field are some active faults, which have the capacity for some larger earthquakes. So one day one of the tectonic faults is going to move. People are going to ask the question: Did the shrinkage of The Geysers cause the movement of the fault? If that's the case then we have a larger issue.

Japan keen to use geothermic power

Worryingly, Japan has recently started to see geothermic power as the way forwards for its renewable energy sources.

In January, 2009, the Telegraph reported:

A string of geothermal power plants are to be developed by a number of firms keen to capitalise on the active volcanic landscape that spans the projects to be started this year include a geothermal power plant to be constructed in Yuzawa in Akita Prefecture, northern Japan, by Mitsubisi Materials and J-Power...

The £300.5 million (40 billion yen) project will tap into hot water and steam around 2,000 metres below the surface.


Oil drilling: Thumper trucks, explosives and shock waves

A deep sea drilling vessel, such as provided by the Japan Driling Co Ltd, has a 'drill string' of 10 km in length. Is this just a pin prick?

Hydrocarbons are detected using sensitive electronic noses called sniffers.

Shock waves are then passed through hidden rock layers and interpreting the waves that are reflected back to the surface (seismology).

A shock wave is created by the following:

  • Compressed-air gun - shoots pulses of air into the water (for exploration over water)
  • Thumper truck - slams heavy plates into the ground (for exploration over land)
  • Explosives - detonated after being drilled into the ground (for exploration over land) or thrown overboard (for exploration over water)

Seismologists interpret the readings for signs of oil and gas traps.

An oil rig is constructed and drilling begins.

Because there is a build-up of pressure, a 'blowout preventer' is intalled: high-pressure valves (located under the land rig or on the sea floor) that seal the high-pressure drill lines and relieve pressure when necessary to prevent a blowout (uncontrolled gush of gas or oil to the surface).

Once they've reached the final depth, the crew completes the well to allow oil to flow into the casing in a controlled manner. First, they lower a 'perforating gun' into the well to the production depth. The gun has explosive charges to create holes in the casing through which oil can flow.

Once the oil is flowing, the rig is removed from the site and a pump is installed.

Offshore drilling:

In offshore drilling, sonic equipment is used to find the oil sites. Then they use a mobile offshore drilling unit (MODU) to dig the initial well in the ocean floor. At the sea floor is the blowout preventer.

Offshore production rigs work in a similar way to land-based oil rigs.

New Zealand

Is it a coincidence that New Zealand has just suffered one of its biggest ever earthquakes?

For decades oil exploration in New Zealand was off the radar. There was the Maui gas and oil field in the Tasman Sea, the largest oil field in New Zealand. This oil field has been in action for more than twenty five years, contributing to more than three-quarters of the hydro-carbons produced. But the reserves have since dwindled, so exploration for oil has begun in earnest.

According to the country's Ministry of Economic Development's 2009 Energy Data File, the spending on oil exploration was the highest in a decade. The expenditure in petroleum exploration increased to $314 million from $136 million in 2007.

Even if there is no connection at all between the ravaging of the earth's deep oil resources and the recent earthquakes and tsunamis, there is certainly a connection between the recent conflicts and oil resources.

And there is certainly a connection between financial resources and oil:

In 2008 alone, the United States produced an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil per day and imported 9.8 million barrels per day from other countries.


Warnings of more earthquakes and tsunamis have gone unheaded

Bill-McGuireNearly 4 years ago, Bill McGuir, director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, warned of more earthquakes, volcanoes, landslides and tsunamis.

In an article in the UK Guardian, he wrote:

Unlike most apparently intractable problems, which have a tendency to go away when examined closely and analytically, the climate change predicament just seems to get bigger and scarier the more we learn about it.

Now we discover that not only are the oceans and the atmosphere conspiring against us, bringing baking temperatures, more powerful storms, floods and ever-climbing sea levels, but the crust beneath our feet seems likely to join in too.

Looking back to other periods in our planet's history when the climate was swinging about wildly, most notably during the last ice age, it appears that far more than the weather was affected. The solid earth also became restless, with an increase in volcanic activity, earthquakes, giant submarine landslides and tsunamis....

Maybe the Earth is trying to tell us something. It really would be worth listening before it is too late.

Indeed she is!



The Punch

Al Jazeera Live Blog - Japan Earthquake

Al Jazeera Live Blog - Japan's Twin Disasters

World Nuclear Association - Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors

World Nuclear Association - Nuclear Power and Earthquakes

U.S.Geological Survey

Scientific American

Japan Drilling Company

British Medical Journal

Green Audit

New York Times

Huffington Post


The Westmorland Gazette