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How Japan's Atomic Emergency Should Inform Our Nuclear-Powered Future

nuclear plant

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake that struck Japan this week didn't just trigger a massive tsunami. It also caused an atomic-power emergency at the the Fukushima No. 1 plant in Fukushima Prefecture, where 3,000 people in a two-mile radius around the plant were forced to evacuate due to an overheated reactor. It's a black mark for nuclear-power advocates the world over—and confirmation to the anti-nuclear camp that nuclear energy can be a dangerous beast. The question is: Can we prevent this kind of disaster from happening again?

The problem with the Fukushima plant is the direct result of a 40-year-old, poorly designed nuclear core containment device, claims Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste expert at Beyond Nuclear, an anti-nuclear group. The Japanese did retrofit the containment structures with ventilation systems to prevent pressure buildup, but when the vents release steam and pressure, they also release radioactivity. This is happening now, according to the Los Angeles Times, as Japan releases what it calls "slightly radioactive" vapor from the plant. Japan's nuclear safety agency has said it won't cause a threat to people's health.

It is possible to design earthquake-proof nuclear plants—for a price. New reactors in the U.S cost upwards of $15 billion, and adding the thick concrete and strong rebar necessary to withstand an 8.9-plus magnitude earthquake could tack on at least another billion dollars, estimates Kamps.

It's hard to say if any currently operating nuclear plants—or even plants in the pipeline—could buck disaster in a scenario like Japan's. The most popular new reactor design in the U.S, the Toshiba Westinghouse AP1000, is supposed to be able to withstand earthquakes, tornadoes, and even crashing airliners. But John S. Ma, a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), suggests that may not be the case because materials used in construction are too brittle. "It has not been demonstrated that the building can absorb and dissipate energy imparted on the structure by an impact or a seismic event," he claimed in a statement. Nevertheless, the design is moving toward NRC approval, and 24 units have been ordered already in the U.S.

The Japan disaster might hamper Congress's rumored plans in the days and weeks to come to launch a nuclear power push. "It's ironic timing," says Kamps. At the very least, Japan's disaster should serve as a warning: natural disasters cannot be underestimated when designing nuclear structures.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

Read more coverage of the Japan earthquake.

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