Image: Ling'ao Nuclear Power Plant near Shenzhen in southern China
AP
The Ling'ao Nuclear Power Plant is one of two nuclear stations in Daya Bay, near Shenzhen in southern China. At least 32 plants in operation or under construction in Asia are at risk of one day being hit by a tsunami, nuclear experts and geologists warn.
By
updated 4/18/2011 7:38:55 PM ET 2011-04-18T23:38:55

The skeleton of what will soon be one of the world's biggest nuclear plants is slowly taking shape along China's southeastern coast — right on the doorstep of Hong Kong's bustling metropolis. Three other facilities nearby are up and running or under construction.

Like Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant they lie within a few hundred miles of the type of fault known to unleash the largest tsunami-spawning earthquakes.

Called subduction zones, these happen when one tectonic plate is lodged beneath another. And because the so-called Manila Trench hasn't been the source of a huge quake in at least 440 years, some experts say tremendous stresses are building, increasing the chances of a major rupture.

Should that happen, the four plants in southern China, and a fifth perched on Taiwan's southern tip, could be in the path of a towering wave like the one that struck Fukushima.

"We have to assume they'll be hit," said David Yuen, a University of Minnesota professor who has modeled seismic probabilities for the fault. "Maybe not in the next 10 years, but in 50 or 100 years."

Asia, the world's most seismically charged region, is undergoing a nuclear renaissance as it struggles to harness enough power for its huge populations and booming economies.

But China, Taiwan, India and several other countries frantically building coastal facilities have made little use of new science to determine whether these areas are safe. At least 32 plants in operation or under construction in Asia are at risk of one day being hit by a tsunami, nuclear experts and geologists warn.

And even when nations have conducted appropriate seismic hazard assessments, in many cases they have not shared the findings with the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, leaving experts frustrated and in the dark.

"It's pretty astonishing to a lot of us that so little priority is placed on the work we do," said Kerry Sieh of the Earth Observatory of Singapore, who has studied and written about the Manila Trench, where pressure has been building for millions of years.

He is among those who say it is only a matter of time before it snaps.

Subduction faults
In assessing the tsunami risks to nuclear power stations, scientists focus on their proximity to subduction faults, volcanoes and areas frequently hit by underwater landslides — all of which can trigger seismic waves. Because giant tsunamis recur, they also look at historic and scientific records, going back up to 4,000 years if possible.

The greatest threat comes from the subduction faults crisscrossing the globe, some far from the minds of policymakers, nuclear industry officials and the public because it has been so long since they exploded.

In places where tectonic plates that form these faults are "coupled," or stuck together, the stresses are the biggest, especially if centuries have passed without a major energy-releasing earthquake.

When the strain eventually forces one plate to pop up or dive under the other, the resulting temblor can spawn mammoth waves like the one that struck off Japan's northeast coast on March 11, triggering the nuclear crisis that has carried on for more than a month.

While there is some "coupling" at the Manila Trench, there is debate about just how much. Scientists say more research needs to be done to determine if pressure is building and along which segments.

A computerized simulation by Yuen's students shows a magnitude-9.0 quake along the Manila Trench sending waves racing along the South China Sea, before slamming Taiwan's southern shore 15 minutes later. The tsunami reaches China's southeast coast in around two hours. It also strikes Hong Kong, which sits just 30 miles from the nearest nuclear plant — close enough to see increased radiation levels if a plant were to be damaged by a Fukushima-like event.

Scientists paint a worst-case scenario in which waves 15 to 24 feet high (5 to 8 meters) could strike the plants in China and Taiwan.

'Smoking gun'
Science has come a long way since the first nuclear plant was built in the 1950s.

By carbon dating the ash, pollen or other organic material attached to tsunami sand deposits swept inland with the giant walls of water, geologists can determine to the decade, and sometimes even the year, when the wave hit and how big it was when it roared ashore.

That's important because some tsunamis only strike once a millennium.

"This is the smoking gun, the calling card of the tsunami, and when you find it, especially far inland, you know that this is an area that has been hit with a large tsunami in the past," said Bruce Jaffe, an oceanographer and tsunami expert at the U.S. Geological Survey.

Such research is considered essential in deciding where to locate nuclear power stations because most are built along seashores, rivers and lakes to supply the massive amounts of water needed to keep their reactors from overheating. Even plants perched on hills or cliffs may be in danger because the pipes used to carry up water used for cooling could be damaged in a powerful tsunami.

Japan, which sits atop three highly active tectonic plates with 54 reactors dotting its coastlines, has probably done the most when it comes to looking back in history.

Even so, Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the hobbled Fukushima plant, did not factor geologic evidence of the giant Jogan tsunami of 869 A.D. into its preparedness. When the tsunami hit last month, it unleashed waves up to 42 feet (14 meters) high, swamping the backup generators needed for cooling.

The same region was also walloped twice before, once around 140 B.C. and again sometime between 600 B.C. and 900 B.C., scientific studies revealed.

Experts hope Japan has taught the world an important lesson: When it comes to nuclear safety, it's essential to imagine the unimaginable. Looking back 50 years, or even 500, is not enough.

"When you're talking about radioactivity and possibilities of explosions ... you have to look at what is within the realm of possibility," said Jody Bourgeois, a tsunami expert at the University of Washington who was doing research in Japan when the disaster struck. "You should be building it with factors of safety for the maximum possible events."

Jolted into action
It's not the first time a tsunami has threatened nuclear reactors.

The 2004 earthquake off Indonesia's subduction fault spawned the monster tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen nations.

It also sent waves slamming into a nuclear plant in the southern Indian township of Kalpakkam, the country's center of atomic research, nearly a thousand miles from the quake's epicenter.

Though the reactors automatically shut down and no radioactive material was released, it showed that even facilities far from dangerous faults need to prepare for the worst.

While the near miss in India raised awareness, it did not prompt major changes to the safety design at the Madras Atomic Power Station, said its director, K. Ramamurthy. Last week, however, a top government official said India would revamp the safety features at all its nuclear plants to try to prevent a Japan-style crisis.

The Madras plant is among the scores that have yet to ask the IAEA for an independent review to determine if their tsunami preparedness assessments meet international standards.

The same holds for Pakistan, which built a plant along a coastline near Karachi that was hit by a tsunami in 1945, as well as for China, Taiwan and the U.S.

Though the reports aren't mandatory, Antonio Godoy, the IAEA's recently retired top seismic safety expert, said many countries have held up efforts to build a comprehensive database identifying the plants vulnerable to tsunamis based on such reviews.

The Fukushima crisis does seem to have jolted some governments into action.

Tsunami expert Tso-Ren Wu of Taiwan's National Central University, warns that "we are long overdue" for a similar quake on the Manila Trench. He was recently commissioned by Taiwan to model worst-case scenarios for all three of the island's nuclear plants and a fourth under construction. His findings will be used to help redesign the facilities or raise their seawalls, if necessary.

His studies indicate two plates that form the subduction zone are pushing against each other at a relatively fast 8.7 centimeters (3.4 inches) per year, forcing extreme amounts of energy to build up. A fault slip from the two plates would be up to 38 meters, comparable to what occurred during the 1960 magnitude-9.5 Chile earthquake, the largest on record. By comparison, the slips in Indonesia and Japan were estimated at around 20 meters. The greater the slip, the more water is heaved up to create bigger tsunami waves.

It's not yet clear, however, if the Japan disaster was a wake-up call for energy-starved China, which has the world's most ambitious nuclear power expansion.

China's nuclear regulators declined to answer questions submitted by The Associated Press, but have said in the past that plants along their southeastern coast have been fitted with the most modern technology and are able to withstand huge storm surges from typhoons, which hit with far less force than tsunamis.

As for the likelihood of a mammoth tsunami, Li Zhong-Cheng of the National Energy Center told the state-run China Daily newspaper after last month's disaster that coastal areas are protected by a wide, shallow continental shelf that is not conducive to the formation of big seismically triggered waves.

Other scientists say there isn't enough research to make such a declaration.

Time to act?
Some historical records, though inconsistent, indicate a 30-foot (10-meter) tsunami in 1782 from the South China Sea killed as many as 40,000 people after hitting southern Taiwan. Records also point to a 27-foot wave in 1765 that swept as many as 10,000 people out to sea in the same province where the Chinese plants are located.

But experts say China needs to look much further back in time.

Unlike Japan, sand deposit studies have just begun there and have not yet yielded evidence of ancient tsunamis. More research is needed along the coast and in the Philippines — which would have been within reach of the same waves.

If that data, along with predictions about future earthquake-spawned tsunamis are not taken into account, some fear disaster could strike again some day.

Plants in the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic and Persian Gulf also need to be prepared.

The only candidate for a large tsunami in the continental U.S. is the Cascadian subduction zone, more than 200 miles off the West coast. Experts say neither the Diablo Canyon nor San Onofre stations in California are considered in the path of destruction, though they may still be vulnerable to local tsunamis generated by other faults or submarine landslides. Both have recently promised to carry out more advanced seismic testing to guarantee safety.

"What happened in Japan was not a surprise," said Godoy, who remains an IAEA consultant and has spent much of the past 20 years warning governments to prepare for worst-case scenarios. "Maybe now they'll wake up, listen and act."

___

Mason reported from Hanoi, Vietnam. Associated Press writers Charles Hutzler in Beijing, Muneeza Naqvi in New Delhi and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Fla., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Triple tragedy for Japan

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  1. Office workers in Tokyo look at smoke rising over the skyline after the magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan's northeast coast on March 11, 2011. (Xinhua via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Waves pour over a seawall and roar into a seaside village near the mouth of Hei River on March 11 as the tsunami generated by the massive earthquake hits shore. (Mainichi Newspaper via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hotel employees squat around a pillar at the hotel's entrance in Tokyo after the powerful earthquake on March 11. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A tsunami wave sweeps away homes in its path in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. One house bursts into flames after the tsunami swept it and many of its neighbors off their foundations in Natori on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Shaken evacuees gather in Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo on March 11. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial photo shows Sendai Airport being inundated by a tsunami on March 11. Later reports said the first wave hit 26 minutes after the quake struck at 2:46 p.m. local time. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A swirling pattern is evident in this aerial photo of the tsunami as it hit a port in Oarai, Ibaraki prefecture on March 11. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Toya Chiba, a reporter for local newspaper Iwate Tokai Shimbun, is swept away while taking pictures at the mouth of the Owatari River during the tsunami at Kamaishi port, Iwate prefecture. Chiba managed to survive in the rush of water by grabbing a dangling rope and climbing onto a coal heap around 30 feet high after being swept away for about 100 feet, Kyodo News reports. (Kamaishi Port Office / Kyodo via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Natural gas containers burn in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo, on March 11. The massive earthquake triggered many fires, posing additional problems for first responders. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Containers for cargo are strewn about like giant Legos in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People use a floating container to ferry survivors to higher ground in Kesennuma City, Miyagi prefecture, on March 12. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Cars swept into a jumble by the tsunami are seen in Hitachi City, Ibaraki prefecture, on March 12. (Yomiuri via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A line of residents seeking water snakes across the playground of a school in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13, two days after the earthquake. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Japanese firefighters rescue tsunami survivors in Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A Japanese home drifts in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Sendai in this photograph taken on March 13. (Dylan McCord / U.S. Navy via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A woman cries while sitting on a road in the devastated city of Natori, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (Asahi Shimbun / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. An "SOS" signal scrawled on the sports field of a high school beckons potential rescuers on March 13 in the town of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    The body of a victim of the twin disaster lays on the stairs of a destroyed house in Sendai, Miyagi prefecture, on March 13. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sixty-year-old Hiromitsu Shinkawa waves to members of Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force preparing to rescue him about 9 miles off Fukushima prefecture on March 13. Shinkawa survived by clinging to a piece of roof after the tsunami hit his hometown of Minamisoma. (Japanese Defense Forces via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People walk along a flooded street in Ishimaki City, Miyagi prefecture on March 13. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. An explosion at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant sends a plume of smoke skyward on March 14. The blast was believed to have been caused by a buildup of hydrogen inside the reactor building, caused by the partial meltdown of nuclear fuel inside. The plant was crippled after the earthquake cut power to the station and tsunami waves knocked out backup generators. (NTV / FCT) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A 1-year-old boy is re-checked for radiation exposure after being decontaminated in Nihonmatsu, Fukushiima prefecture, on March 14. (Toru Nakata / Asahi Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Officers examine a Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force on March 14. The warplane was swept by the tsunami into a building at Matsushima base in Higashimatsushima, Iwate prefecture. (Kyodo News via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Japanese rescue team members carry the body of a man out of the village of Saito on March 14. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A woman survivor is reunited with her relatives at a shelter in Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture, on March 15. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A bicyclist wheels across a hellish landscape in what was the city of Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 15. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Tsunami survivors cook on an open fire in front of their damaged house in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 15. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Vehicle headlamps illuminate a devastated section of Yamada town, Iwate prefecture, on March 16. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Evacuees carry bowls of pork soup from a soup kitchen to a makeshift shelter in Minami Sanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on March 16. (Tsuyoshi Matsumoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Refugees, including 53 people who were rescued from a retirement home during the tsunami, take shelter inside a school gym in the leveled city of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture, on March 17. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Members of Japan Self-Defense Force pray over the body of a tsunami victim in Onagawa, Miyagi prefecture, on March 20. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Tomoko Yagi looks at two firetrucks that were tossed around like toys in the tsunami in Kamaishi, Iwate prefecture, on March 20. (Lee Jae-Won / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Survivors relay boxes of relief supplies arriving at their evacuation center in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, on March 21. (Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. A boat juts out from the top of a building in Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture, on March 22. (Hiroto Nomoto / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Manami Kon, 4, uses the Japanese "hiragana" characters she just learned to write a letter to her missing mother in the devastated city of Miyako, Iwate prefecture, on March 22 . "Dear Mommy. I hope you're alive. Are you OK?" read the letter, which took about an hour to write. Also missing were the little girl's father and sister. (Norikazu Tateishi / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Tokyo Electric Power Co. workers collect data in the control room for the Unit 1 and 2 reactors at the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant on March 23. (Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. An aerial photo taken by an unmanned drone shows the damaged units of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant on March 24. (Air Photo Service via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Two residents exchange words as they are reunited two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami in a makeshift public bath set up outside a shelter in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 25. (Shuji Kajiyama / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. A Japanese funeral parlor worker shovels dirt onto the coffins of victims of the earthquake and tsunami at a mass funeral in Yamamoto, Miyagi prefecture, on March 26. (David Guttenfelder / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. A lone pine tree stands in a devastated area iof Rikuzentakaka, Iwate prefecture, on March 27. It was the only one among tens of thousands of other pine trees forming "Takata Matsubara," or Takata seaside pine forest, standing after the March 11 tsunami washed away all the others, local media said. (Kyodo News via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. A woman whose house was washed away loses control of her emotions on March 29 as she talks about the disaster that befell her hometown of Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Kuni Takahashi) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, left, talk with evacuees at Tokyo Budoh-kan evacuation center on March 30. (Issei Kato / Pool via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Officials of the Tokyo Electric Power Co., (TEPCO), including Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, center, Vice President Takashi Fujimoto, second from left, bow before a news conference at the company's head office in Tokyo on March 30. (Itsuo Inouye / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. A man rides a bicycle in between the ships that were washed ashore by the March 11 tsunami, on March 30, in Kesennuma, Miyagi prefecture. (Eugene Hoshiko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. An elderly woman waves to her grandchildren in Minamisanriku, Miyagi prefecture, on April 3, as authorities began a mass evacuation of approximately 1,100 homeless survivors to shelters elsewhere. (Jiji Press via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster

These aerial photos show locations in Japan before and after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11. Use the slider below the images to reveal the changes in the landscape.

  1. Above: Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  2. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
    Ho / Reuters
    Timeline Crisis in Japan

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