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A seismologist looks at nuclear power plant safety issues in Japan

Robert J. Geller (Univ. of Tokyo)

Joint Meeting of the U.S.-Japan Roundtable and the Forum on Energy Editorial Board
October 24, 2013 Washington, DC

Robert J. Geller
US citizen; permanent resident of Japan B.S. (1973, Geophysics), Ph.D. (1977) from Caltech First tenured non-Japanese faculty member at Univ. of Tokyo (Assoc. Prof., 1984-99; Prof., 1999-)

Research interests
seismic wave propagation, Earth structure, earthquake sources predictability/non-predictability of earthquakes policy-related issues (seismic/tsunami risks of NPPs)

Refereed publications

The big picture

March 2011
Tohoku earthquake (M9) Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP accident

October 2013 (31 months later)

Only 2 (of 50) NPPs operating*
*But both now shut down for routine maintenance

New Japan NRA (Nuclear Regulation Agency) dysfunctional No progress towards resolving key issues

What should be done?

Change framework to risk assessment
Nothing in life is 100.00000% safe

Learn from failure (Fukushima Dai-Ichi)

Tsunami countermeasures were insufficient

Learn from success (Onagawa)

Earthquake-resistance of NPPs was strong; Tsunami countermeasures were successful

Reform NRA
Adopt regulatory practices from abroad 4 Use probabilistic approach, not deterministic

The new minister of industry just said (in a TV interview) that he wouldnt approve restarting NPPs until the experts certify safety.
Experts should be tasked with assessing the risks and uncertainties. The public and political leaders should make the final decision.

Dec. 30, 2012


Non-nuclear risks cant be neglected!

Refineries, other plants, and storage tanks on landfill are at risk! Risk of liquefaction, fires, spills, and plant failures Risk of dependence on imports of oil and gas
Photos: P. Yanev

NRA natural hazard standards

Active Faults
Earthquake ground motion

(especially on Sea of Japan coast)

A more balanced approach is needed!

Manju era tsunami (1026)

The tsunami risk to NPPs on the Sea of Japan coast must not be overlooked!

Genkai NPP
Figure: V. Gusiakov

Genkai NPP (Saga Prefecture)

July 16, 2011

Could the Genkai NPP withstand a tsunami similar to that in 1993 at Okushiri Island?

Earthquake hazard maps

The good news:
We have methods for making seismic hazard maps

The bad news:

These methods havent been verified

The worse news:

The hazard maps dont agree with the data


Base map (Japanese govt. hazard map) vs. actual seismicity since 1979 Regions rated as especially hazardous have been quiet Regions with damaging quakes (1995 Kobe, 2011 Tohoku, etc.) were not rated as at high hazard level
Geller, 2011 (Nature)

Need for improved communication

Recent progress in earth science
We know more about natural hazards We also know more about the uncertainties of our knowledge

Poor information flow in Japan

Nuclear industry needs better communication with top-class geoscience researchers Japan NRA actions should reflect recent research

Where do we go from here? My suggestions

Partial Restart of NPPs
Rank NPPs as A, B, or C rank
A Rank: Restart now B Rank: Restart after safety upgrade C Rank : Decommission


Adopt a unified energy policy

Conservation Renewable energy Restart NPPs after appropriate checks
Transparent procedures Restore public confidence

Unify 50 Hz (Kanto) and 60 H (Kansai) power generation to a single national standard


Political Problems in Japan

Paralysis of decision-making under previous DPJ government Reluctance to take political responsibility by present LDP government Inability of power companies and industry groups to make a fresh start that will convince the public Teething problems of NRA

Must escape safe/unsafe dichotomy Decision-making must be based on quantitative risk assessment

Thank you for your attention