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Disaster in Japan forces us to take stock at home

by: Mike Lucas

The catastrophe in Japan is a wake-up call for Oregonians to take special note of our geologic similarities and digest the reality that it's not a question of if we will be struck by a devastating earthquake, but is instead a question of when it will hit.

Regional scientists such as Oregon State University's Harry Yeh, a professor who specializes in oceanic and coastal wave phenomena and tsunami mitigation, pointed out on a Tuesday morning broadcast of Oregon Public Broadcasting that Japan and Oregon have comparable coastlines, though Oregon's is less rugged and less populated. He also pointed out that the river surge, as witnessed in Japan, would be unlikely to occur for most portions of the Oregon coast, with one vulnerable exception: the Columbia River.

How far upriver the surge could push is not known and is a topic that will be examined in light of the results in Japan, but it is certainly an assessment Columbia County residents and emergency planners should take to heart.

The Japan disaster is also unfolding as the source of strong editorial fodder for why the often-discussed resurgence of nuclear power deserves considerably more analytical debate than has been presented so far. The earthquake and resulting tsunami had led to the compromise of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in northeast Japan. As of Tuesday morning, three explosions had occurred at the plant over four days, and there was concern radiation leaks were climbing to dangerous levels.

Columbia County's nuclear legacy, despite the absence of the 499-foot cooling tower or the smaller-in-stature 203-foot containment building at the Trojan Nuclear Plant, persists today: Remaining on site at the plant south of Rainier are 34 dry-storage casks, each weighing 150 tons, containing used fuel rods. The casks are stored little more than a stone's throw from the river's edge.

The fuel rods are likely to remain in Columbia County until a process is approved for the opening of a national nuclear waste repository. The Yucca Mountain Repository, once expected to open by 1998, is now unlikely to ever occur. Over the past two years the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency started the process for shutting down the Yucca Mountain licensing process on the heels of the Obama administration's decision to scrap the controversial, decades-long project.

Undoubtedly Yucca Mountain has had its long-standing detractors, and there are scientific reports that give rise to concern over the program. A NRC report posited the possibility for seepage of nuclear material into groundwater, though there were other assertions the containment units had been built to withstand 10,000 years. Built above the water table, there existed the possibility of oxidation of the units, according to an article by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a magazine published by nuclear scientists and engineers specifically to advocate for nuclear arms control.

For Columbia County and nearby Washington - the location of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, and where the Trojan reactor had ultimately been ferried for supposedly temporary storage - the shutdown of Yucca Mountain licensing, despite the federal government's 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act that legally binds the federal government to take nuclear wastes off of the plant operators' hands, means it will likely be many more decades before the region will be clear of nuclear wastes.

In 2009 NRC Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the dry-cask storage system such as currently exists at Trojan will be safe for half a century, according to a 2010 New York Times article. Considering that Yucca Mountain first began to be examined as a possible repository site in 1978, with Congress' formal backing occurring in 2002, that doesn't leave much time to find an alternative.

And, after watching the events unfold in Japan, it's hard to know how much time we really have.