On March 11, a massive 9.0-magnitude offshore earthquake triggered a tsunami, a super-wave 30 feet high, moving at the speed of a jet airliner.
Minutes later, that wave slammed into the northeastern coast of Japan, washing over low-lying areas, destroying everything in its path, killing untold thousands, devastating the national economy, and wrecking a nuclear power plant, with effects that are not yet known.
How cruel and ironic that the only nation ever to be attacked with atomic weapons should again be so devastated and threatened by the nuclear cloud. Their suffering, live via satellites and cell phones, is deeply disturbing.
But the Japanese disaster is far away from our North Coast, thousands of miles from here, across the world’s largest ocean. We empathize, but we mostly do not identify with the suffering Japanese.
And yet, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) is 40 miles from Del Mar. The U. S. government has advised the Japanese to evacuate a 50-mile radius around the damaged reactor.
Like its Japanese counterpart, the San Onofre plant was built on the ocean’s edge, so that seawater could be used for cooling the reactors. Like Japan, coastal California is on the Ring of Fire, the earthquake belt that runs all around the Pacific Ocean. Our coastland and adjacent waters are riddled with faults. The San Onofre plant was built to withstand a 7.0 quake.
There is another seaside nuclear plant at Diablo Canyon, just north of Pismo Beach. It was built to withstand a 7.5 magnitude earthquake.
In the 1960s, a nuclear power plant was proposed for Bodega Bay, a picturesque fishing village 50 miles north of San Francisco. Because of local opposition, it never was built. The Bodega Bay site was right on the San Andreas Fault and close by the region’s environmentally sensitive fishing, dairy, and tourism industries. Attempts to build a nuclear power plant in Malibu also were abandoned.
There are more than 100 nuclear generators in the United States, providing 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. Japan gets 40 percent of its power from nukes, France 80 percent.
Amid our increasing tendency to allow economic considerations to take precedence over all others, we are told that we “cannot afford” to do without nuclear energy. Recent events remind us that our most brilliant human efforts can be washed away in moments by powerful natural forces — and that perhaps moving towards sustainable energy sources is worth the cost.
Gordon Clanton teaches sociology at San Diego State University. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.