Understanding the tsunami threat to coastal nuclear power plants
-- by Russell Hoffman -- June 19th, 2001

To: grobbins@ocregister.com
From: "Russell D. Hoffman" <rhoffman@animatedsoftware.com>
Subject: Understanding the tsunami threat to coastal nuclear power plants
Cc: letters@ocregister.com, Cathy_Taylor@ocregister.com, California Senators, governor of California

To: Gary Robbins, Science Writer, Orange County Register
From: Russell Hoffman, Concerned Citizen

Date: June 19th, 2001

Re:  Additional comments based on our meeting today:
1) Understanding the tsunami threat to coastal nuclear power plants -- a report personally prepared for you including a number of great quotes from respected, named and linked-to sources.
2) Questions about your plans for the story about the "loophole".
3) What I've learned so far at UCI -- for one thing it really is a mess just like everyone said it would be.
4) Britannica on tsunamis

Dear Mr Robbins,

I appreciate you meeting with me today (Tuesday, June 19th, 2001).  Now that I know that you have only about six months' experience even thinking about nuclear power issues, it's much easier to see how you could be confused, especially when everyone at the NRC and at San Onofre wants you to buy a pig in a poke -- or rather, wants to enlist your help to sell one to the public.  I've thought about it for about 30 of my 44 years.  I can't remember how come I figured it out so young.  I've questioned myself about it ever since, always doing what I can to challenge my thinking, wondering why I thought nuclear power plants were wrong, when so many other otherwise-reasonable people (like you seem to be) seemed to think we need them.

It turned out, most people weren't thinking about them at all, and most of the others were still dazed by dreams of meterless power.  Maybe Tesla had it right, but these guys (the nuclear energy industry) never came close.

Today, you and I didn't have time to talk about much.  You wanted to talk about earthquake codes and tsunamis.  I consider neither to be topics of much interest, frankly.  The only debate about tsunamis, as the rest of this letter proves (IMHO), is about the rate of occurrence.  A typical tsunami would destroy San Onofre if it happened to come ashore there.  As for earthquakes, one big enough to cause catastrophic damage to San Onofre can occur at any time. I really think that's a simple "given" to most rational people.  That it can, indeed happen.  Again, the question they've got you asking really has only to do with the rate of occurrence, so that's exactly and only, what the so-called geologist for the CCC was supposed to give us: A prediction. That what good science gives society.  Numbers.  So we can decide what gambles we want to take.  San Onofre is only built to a 7.0, and I wouldn't want to gamble on that, either.  But actually, the idea of building a nuclear power plant in an earthquake zone OR a tsunami zone (coastal area) is ludicrous!  Or an asteroid zone.  That doesn't leave many places that are the least bit practical, does it?

Of course, you also have to have a very complete and accurate understanding of the magnitude of the disaster.  When fire engulfs a chemical factory, it can be pretty devastating to the local community.  Cancers follow in the area, and so forth.  Radioactive waste, more or less, does the same thing only worse, when it is spread into the environment.  And being odorless, colorless, and tasteless, and effective at any dose level (albeit, at a lower rate the lower the dose), it causes its damage in insidious ways.  And perhaps one of the saddest things is, no matter how small the dose, if it has an effect on you at all, it will be the same effect as if you had received a thousand or a million times that dose (up to high levels, where you get immediate fatal effects or nearly immediate fatal effects nearly all the time among people who receive those dose levels).  Cancer, leukemia, birth defects.

But they have us asking how often a tsunami might hit, or an earthquake, or an asteroid, or a grenade, or a airplane.  Wrong question!  These things WILL happen.

And the very idea that an NRC official would try to claim that a 747 couldn't go through a containment building is just amazing.  For one thing they are loaded with about 1500 lbs of Depleted Uranium.  It's used in the tail (and maybe some in the control surfaces) as a counterweight, because they couldn't figure out a smarter way to build the airplane (come on, there had to be one!).  Depleted Uranium is used by the military to go through hardened bunkers -- but only a pound or two at a time, usually (it should be banned entirely on the battlefield, as a weapon or as armor, for which it is also used). A bullet goes very fast, and is designed to penetrate, but I'll point out that a 747 goes pretty fast too (especially when it's knifing into the ground, I reckon) and is designed to slip as best it can through air, and that takes a certain amount of streamlining.  And anyway, the stuff outside the containment building would be quite a mess, too, including all the control equipment.  One 747 could really ruin their day over at San Onofre.  And the thing is, they are such obvious structures, so if a pilot went crazy, they would have no trouble identifying their target.  (It is believed that a 747 pilot went crazy on the East Coast and nosed his airplane, full of passengers, into the water up in Canada a few years back.)

Yet Charles Marschall at the NRC had the nerve to tell me everything would be okay, there would be no meltdown, the plane wouldn't penetrate the containment building, blah blah blah blah blah.  And you wonder why I'm upset?  I don't like being lied to, that's all.  Containment buildings are full of holes, anyway.  If the reactor has a meltdown everything will get pushed out by the incredible heat and pressure build-up inside the reactor.  The "ultimate heat sink" -- the Pacific Ocean -- would be a catastrophe if it was ever used in that manner.  No one could live near the plant for I don't know how long -- but for Cassini, the official government word for how long people could have to be evacuated from an impact area, which for Cassini they (the government) estimated could be 10s of miles or even more, was "permanently".  There was 400,000 Curies of Plutonium on board Cassini when it was launched in 1997, a bit less when it did its flyby of Earth in 1999, because some of it had decayed.  How many Curies of Plutonium are there at San Onofre?  How many will be in each Dry Cask?  I don't know exactly, why not ask Ray Golden?  (Of course, there are vast quantities of many other elements besides plutonium at San Onofre, including over 200 "daughter" radioactive products.  That waste is complex stuff, which is one reason it's "waste" in the first place.  There's "good" stuff in there (to a nuclear scientist, or a bomb manufacturer), but it's very difficult (read: expensive) to get it out.)

Today, I wanted to talk about this incredible regulatory loophole the nuclear industry has been operating under.  Your seeming lack of interest makes me wonder if we should hand that matter over to someone who reports on legal issues at the Orange County Register.  I think it's a big, big loophole that needs to be closed immediately!  And NOT by the NRC taking more power away from the other agencies!  Nuclear power has matured; surely there is no reason to exclude them from OSHA, CAL-OSHA, etc., if there ever was a reason (there wasn't, I'm sure).  If no reporter at the OC Register wants the story, I will go waste my time with another paper about it (guessing as one might, which paper you consider your main competition, I'll feed it to them if I don't hear from you quickly, just to give you some incentive to hustle on this!).  The OC Register will have no choice but to be known as the (first?) paper that dumped the story.  Personally, I find the loophole business absolutely appalling and I am amazed you aren't equally worried by its ramifications, now that I have explained in person and in writing, exactly what the loophole is and how I happened to discover it.  I don't know why I didn't think of asking to talk to a different reporter, who reports on environment, law, business, or politics, any one of which might be interested.  Anyway, if you want to pass it along, please do so but if I don't hear from you or someone else at the OC Register about it by the end of today, or at the latest early tomorrow, I'll run along to another paper.  They're done putting Shaq on the front page now anyway, and will need something new.

Anyway, today, we didn't talk about half-lives, criticality accidents, meltdowns, SCRAMs, LOC accidents, cancer, leukemia, birth defects, where the NRC gets its data (it's NOT all "peer reviewed"!) and many other things.  We didn't talk about the nuclear fuel cycle and its many chemicals and radioactive waste dumps that result (where many of the pumps no doubt cost $1.5 million dollars to dispose of, as I mentioned they do for Hanford now) , and the enormous amounts of energy required to separate the elements, and the leaks, spills, etc., which occur before the fuel is ever put into a nuclear power plant.  There's a lot one has to know to understand nuclear power and its various effects on humanity.

I hope you now realize that the letters I sent you in the past few days, while they may have seemed "excited" to you, were actually very carefully written, I spent a long time on them and read and reread, and rewrote them, many times before sending them.

I hope you now have a better understanding of the many angles I have looked at this issue from, and how hard I have had to research the matter before daring to speak out.  Dare?  Well, sure.  Look how I was attacked in the North County Times letters sections last week for merely mentioning the crane drop incident (oh, yeah, I suppose calling for SONWGS to be closed might have had an effect too.  But I wonder where the heckler works?).  Would that the NCT would some day print the whole truth about what is going on at SONWGS:

Would that the Orange County Register would.

There are a number of points from our conversation I would like to go over in greater depth, but one really bothered me.  There seemed to be some confusion about what exactly a tsunamis is, and what their threat to San Onofre might be.  Well, when I'm away from my office, away from my phone, away from the Internet, unable to check facts, a guy can pretty much tell me a zebra is a horse, and I'm liable to go with it if he seems sure enough.  It's a bad trait to have, alas, and it did me no good today.  It's a trait a lot of people in the nuclear industry have, but I guess they don't go home and check their facts.  I do.

You seem to be confused about the behavior of a Tsunami out in the "deep" ocean ("deep" being a bit of a misnomer, as explained in the Britannica article shown below), versus its behavior once it gets to the shore.

The article below was copied from the Britannica web site.  I think it should clarify the matter for you.  I don't know what kind of swell rose the boats two feet in the harbor you mentioned (a Navy boat did it down here a couple of days ago, at least that's what they think it was), but it wasn't what we are talking about with tsunamis.

A large wave washing up onto "SONWGS" (remember, the "W" is ignored) would flood the entire facility, kill all the workers, and smash up and short out all the equipment. This would be an absolutely catastrophic accident.  Shall I get one of the nuclear engineers I know to tell you that, since you didn't seem to want to believe me when I said it?  I would have thought it was kind of obvious.

"On July 10, 1958, an earthquake triggered a landslide, which created a wave that wiped out trees 1,700 feet up a hillside on the opposite side of Lituya Bay, Alaska."

We have lots of places that can have rock slides similar to what started the Lituya Bay tsunami.  The wave could even start somewhere on our own coast, then bounce off the islands off our coast, and bounce back and hit San Onofre!

More on the Lituya Bay earthquake (an 8.3) appears here:
"The giant rock mass had more than 40 million cubic yards of material and extended as high as 3,000 feet, with a center of gravity at about 2,000 feet above sea level. Driven by gravity force of almost 1g, this rock mass plunged practically as a monolithic unit into Gilbert Inlet at a very steep angle of perhaps as much as 75-80 degrees, as the sides of the Bay were truly precipitous."

And from that the NASA page linked to above is also this:
"April Fools' Day 1946. A day for tricks and fun everywhere...everywhere but Hilo, Hawaii, that is. It was 7:00 a.m. and as the fishermen were getting the last of their early morning catch, the sea decided to play a trick on them. Suddenly the ocean rushed out, leaving fish and boats stranded on bare sand. The fishermen, quite aware of the impending danger, rushed to shore to warn the town of the approaching disaster.  Within minutes a wave that had traveled 2,500 miles from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska came crashing into Hilo. It killed one hundred fifty-nine people and caused millions of dollars in damages. The wave that destroyed Hilo is one of the most powerful and most feared natural disasters of all: the tsunami!"

At the very least, shouldn't the NRC require the licensees of coastal reactors to install fuzzy-logic ocean-depth monitors, and if the level of the ocean suddenly starts to recede, a SCRAM should be instantly begun (for all the good it will do)?  There are only minutes, at most, when the waters start to recede.

Here's a nice quote about tsunamis from PBS's web site:
"Though it's true that tsunamis are ocean waves, calling them by the same name as the ordinary wind-driven variety is a bit like referring to firecrackers and atomic warheads both as 'explosives.' Triggered by volcanic eruptions, landslides, earthquakes, and even impacts by asteroids or comets, a tsunami represents a vast volume of seawater in motion -- the source of its destructive power."

How very appropriate for our discussion, that mention of "atomic warheads", don't you think?  I mean, considering how many thousands of times more nuclear material is at SONWGS than in one atomic warhead.  That page also states:

"But by far the most frequent tsunami-maker is the buckling of the seafloor caused by an undersea earthquake."

Tsunamis travel great distances, and I can't be sure what effect our particular coast would have, but it might be of some consideration that San Onofre is said to be a great surfing beach, so it seems reasonable to think that it is NOT a very "protected" beach from big waves.  Maybe from REALLY BIG waves there is some peculiar protection, from underwater shelves or something, but I doubt it, and I doubt anyone would know if it were true, and so I think it's a fair guess that what is supposed to protect SONWGS from Tsunamis is just dumb luck.  That's not good enough for the most valuable coast on the planet.  Or any coast.

"The 1960 earthquake off the coast of Chile generated a tsunami that had enough force to kill 150 people in Japan after a journey of 22 hours and 10,000 miles. The waves from a trans-Pacific tsunami can reverberate back and forth across the ocean for days, making it jiggle like a planetary-scale pan of Jell-O"

It can't happen here?  Why sure it can!  And when it does, watch out! 

Also from that page:

"Impelled by the mass of water behind them, the waves bulldoze onto the shore and inundate the coast, snapping trees like twigs, toppling stone walls and lighthouses, and smashing houses and buildings into kindling."

Big waves smash things up pretty good.  There's an amazing video I saw on TV a month or so back, of an 500- or a 600-foot ship (maybe it was even bigger, but I don't think it could have been any smaller) getting washed over (with the loss of all hands) in a storm by a rogue wave of enormous size -- 50, maybe 80 feet high or even greater.  Boats are built to withstand rough water, but even they can't stand up to things like that. The people on the bridge could see the rogue wave (this wasn't a tsunami) coming across the whole boat, as could the Coast Guard people manning the infrared cameras.  I don't think the boat was even there after the wave went by.

My point is that at SONWGS, the piping, the wiring, the emergency diesel generators, everything would be smashed up.  Water can be incredibly forceful when it gets moving  (this can be good, if it's harnessed for serving mankind's energy needs).  I just don't know why you kept talking about a 2 foot swell at our meeting today.  As I tried to explain, that's just what happens out at sea (but it moves incredibly fast; four hundred or more miles per hour).

Here's a nice animation of a Tsunami knocking over a lighthouse:

If you know anything about lighthouses, they are incredibly strong structures, which smart men have built better and better for centuries -- in other words, we know how to build them probably as well as anything we build, and we have many, many generations more experience building strong lighthouses than we have building nukes.  But in the animation, I just want to note that the lighthouse gets totally busted up. 

Now, Mr Robbins: Do you really think all those pipes and everything at SONWGS are going to somehow survive a tsunami?

BTW, the point that was being made about global warming at the CCC hearings was that it might cause the seas to rise, say, 2 feet in the next hundred years or 50 years or whatever, but that's only part of the problem. From the hearing transcripts I've read, the geologist never talked about the additional fact that Global Warming would also make for rougher seas as all weather patterns are expected to be more turbulent -- that's what happens when things heat up.  Things start to move around.  Hurricanes are expected to be more intense and more frequent, for example.  More record high temperatures, but also more record lows.

Again, I appreciate your meeting with me today.  I hope that you will continue to think about the things I've said, and feel free to ask me for any confirming details you might need, further explanations, whatever. I can also put you in touch with nuclear engineers, nuclear physicists, statisticians, doctors, lawyers, activists, ex-plant workers, you-name-it.

After I left you, I did get over to the library at UCI, and even found a crane incident report I hadn't heard about, but I wasn't able to finish that research.  I'll be back frequently, if you want to talk in person for any reason again.  One interesting thing I found, though, kind of puts the topic of tsunamis in perspective -- namely, it's not listed at all in the July, 1980 SON(W)GS 2 & 3 Emergency Plan (table 4-1)!  Tornados, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Fire, Explosion, Aircraft, Flood, "Contaminated Injury", and about 20 engineering anomalies (like Loss of All Offsite Power, etc.) are listed, but not Tsunamis.

I guess they just plumb forgot.  I can fax you the pages if you like.  I made copies.

In any event, I look forward to seeing what you do with this material.  Win yourself a Pulitzer, I hope.


Russell Hoffman
Carlsbad, CA

Attachment:  Britannica on tsunamis


Encyclopędia Britannica Article

also called Seismic Sea Wave, or Tidal Wave, catastrophic ocean wave, usually caused by a submarine earthquake occurring less than 50 km (30 miles) beneath the seafloor, with a magnitude greater than 6.5 on the Richter scale. Underwater or coastal landslides or volcanic eruptions also may cause a tsunami. The term tidal wave is more frequently used for such a wave, but it is a misnomer, for the wave has no connection with the tides.
After the earthquake or other generating impulse, a train of simple, progressive oscillatory waves is propagated great distances at the ocean surface in ever-widening circles, much like the waves produced by a pebble falling into a shallow pool. In deep water, the wavelengths are enormous, about 100 to 200 km, and the wave heights are very small, only 0.3 to 0.6 m (1 to 2 feet). The resulting wave steepness, or ratio of height to length, ranges between 3/2,000,000 and 6/1,000,000. This extremely low steepness, coupled with the waves' long periods that vary from five minutes to an hour, enables normal wind waves and swell to completely obscure the waves in deep water. In any progressive oscillatory wave, the actual water motion at the surface consists of a vertical orbit with a diameter equal to the wave height, coming full circle during the period of the wave. Thus, a surface-water particle or a ship in the open ocean experiences the passage of a tsunami as an insignificant rise and fall of only 0.3 to 0.6 m, lasting from five minutes to an hour.
The surface orbital motion of any progressive oscillatory wave is transmitted diminishingly downward through the water, becoming insignificant at a depth below the surface equal to approximately half the wavelength. Tsunamis, however, being enormously longer than even the greatest ocean depths, experience significant retardation of orbital motion near the seafloor and behave as shallow-water waves regardless of the depth of the ocean the waves are propagated across. The velocity of shallow-water waves is controlled by this friction with the bottom, obeying the formula

in which c is the wave velocity, g is the acceleration of gravity, and D is water depth. This relationship was used to determine the average depth of the oceans in 1856, long before many deep-sea soundings had been taken. Assuming an average velocity for seismic sea waves of about 200 m per second (450 miles per hour), an average oceanic depth of about 4,000 m is obtained; this figure compares very well with the modern estimate of 3,808 m. The relationship has enormous practical value, enabling seismologists to issue warnings to endangered coasts immediately after an earthquake and several hours before the arrival of the tsunamis.
As the waves approach the continental coasts, friction with the increasingly shallow bottom reduces the velocity of the waves. The period must remain constant; consequently, as the velocity lessens, the wavelengths become shortened and the wave amplitudes increase, coastal waters rising as high as 30 m in 10 to 15 minutes. By a poorly understood process, the continental shelf waters begin to oscillate after the rise in sea level. Between three and five major oscillations generate most of the damage; the oscillations cease, however, only several days after they begin.
Tsunamis are reflected and refracted by nearshore bottom topography and coastal configurations as any other water waves. Thus, their effects vary widely from place to place. Occasionally, the first arrival of tsunami at a coast may be a trough, the water receding and exposing the shallow seafloor. Such an occurrence in Lisbon, Port., on Nov. 1, 1755, attracted many curious people to the bay floor; and a large number of them were drowned by the succeeding wave crest that arrived only minutes later. Perhaps the most destructive tsunami was the one that occurred in 1703 at Awa, Japan, killing more than 100,000 people. The spectacular underwater volcanic explosions that obliterated Krakatau (Krakatoa) Island on Aug. 26 and 27, 1883, created waves as high as 35 m in many East Indies localities, killing more than 36,000 people.



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