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Power Plans
Japan Wrangles with Volcanic Nuclear Threats

The Land of the Rising Sun is also seemingly the land of multifarious threats to nuclear reactors. After 2011’s Fukushima disaster, Japan shut down 48 nuclear reactors and began a reassessment of nuclear power, which it relies on for roughly 30 percent of its power needs. In the intervening years, the country has invested heavily in ways to make its reactors safer from disaster, both manmade or natural, and in February Shinzo Abe’s government unveiled a plan for a nuclear restart. But now, as regulators assess the first of Japan’s reactors to potentially receive a green light, there’s a new threat in town: volcanoes. Reuters reports:

The Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA) has already said the chance of volcanic activity during the lifespan of Kyushu Electric Power’s nuclear plant at Sendai was negligible, suggesting it will give it the green light. The plant, some 1,000 km (600 miles) south of Tokyo, lies in a region of active volcanic sites. […]

Sendai, at the southern end of the island of Kyushu, is 50 km (31 miles) from Sakurajima, an active volcano. Five giant calderas, crater-like depressions formed by past eruptions, are also in the region, the closest one just 40 km (25 miles) from the Sendai plant. […]

Eruptions that form calderas are devastating, but extremely rare. Scientists believe the odds of a massive caldera-forming eruption happening in Japan are less than 1 in 10,000 in any given year.

Japan lies on the western arm of the “Ring of Fire,” a region of high volcanic activity along the basin of the Pacific Ocean. Just this week, an Alaskan volcano’s eruptions on the northern section of this ring increased in intensity, earning it a “red alert” designation from the Alaska Volcano Observatory. Japan has 110 active volcanoes.

The mega-eruptions that concern scientists most are extremely rare. (It’s been more than 7,000 years since the last such event occurred in Japan.) Japan may decide that accepting the very slight risk of such a cataclysmic event is worth the benefits that come from reducing dependence on foreign sources of energy. The dangers of nuclear energy are often exaggerated, and nuclear will continue to play a key role in providing consistent, large-scale, zero-carbon power for the world going forward.

Nonetheless, it’s important to be smart about where these plants are sited and not tempt fate. With all of the earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes Japan has to contend with, it may not be the best place to host nuclear reactors.

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  • Corlyss

    Kinda begs the question of whether anyone on the Ring of Fire should be looking to nuclear energy. Come to think of it, Iran shouldn’t be so hot to trot with all those nuke plants making bombs.

  • Andrew Allison

    A grasp of geography would be useful: Sendai is 300km NE of Tokyo, not 600km South.

    • Tom Chambers

      Sendai is also not near Sakurajima, nor even on the island of Kyushu. A quick look at Google Earth shows that the city of Satsumasendai is about 25 miles NW of Sakurajima; maybe that is the site to which the Reuters article is referring.

      • Tom Chambers

        Wikipedia says that Satsumasendai is home to the Sendai nuclear power station. Andrew is correct; so is Reuters–two different Sendais.

        • Andrew Allison

          What Wikipedia reports is: The Sendai Nuclear Power Plant (川内原子力発電所 Sendai genshiryokuhatsudensho?, Sendai NPP) is a nuclear power plant located in the city of Satsumasendai in the Kagoshima Prefecture. The Kagoshima Prefecture city formerly known as Sendi was absorbed into the new city of Satsumasendai in 2004.

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