Interactive Shows Earthquake Risks to America’s Nuclear Power Plants

In their new June 2011 issue, Scientific American magazine has published a story investigating the safety of the newest generation of nuclear power plants (a digital subscription is required for access). To accompany the story, the online team has produced a new interactive graphic available to everyone that pinpoints each of the 104 nuclear reactors across the United States (and the locations of 22 proposed new reactors).

A new Scientific American interactive graphic shows the location of U.S. nuclear reactors overlaid with areas of earthquake risk. Credit: Scientific American.

Similar to the map Climate Central’s David Kroodsma produced in March 2011, immediately following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi facility in Japan, this new map compares the location of American plants to regions of high earthquake risk (Climate Central's interactive tracked the location of previous earthquakes).

Compiling reactor data from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and seismic hazard data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the SciAm graphic shows that there is already a handful of U.S. nuclear power plants located in earthquake-prone areas of the country. The threats aren't just to reactors in California and Washington State; some located in South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri are also along the fringe of seismically active regions. 

Earthquakes pose low probability but high consequence risks for American nuclear power plants — after all, scientists can’t always anticipate in advance when tremors will happen and how strong they will be. However, reactors built near fault lines are constructed with earthquakes in mind, which means that some of the risks are minimized. On the other hand, as Princeton’s M.V. Ramana recently explained, it’s virtually impossible to think of all the accident scenarios that might befall a nuclear reactor. As the Fukushima disaster has demonstrated, risk assessment isn't always as thorough as it could be, either. 

Moreover, climate change is posing new risks to many of America’s nuclear power plants. Sea level rise along U.S. coastlines will increase the threat of storm surges that might inundate coastal nuclear power plants. And an expected increase in heat waves across the South could force several inland nuclear power plants to reduce their generating capacity during the hottest times of the year. As I reported in April, temperature restrictions on river and lake water used to cool nuclear reactors can force the power plants to reduce their output or shut down entirely until temperatures cool down. These temperature limits are in place for environmental protection purposes, since hot water coming out of a power plant can harm aquatic life accustomed to cooler conditions.