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Calif. lawmakers prepare for Japan-size disaster

March 21, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
State lawmakers raised sharp questions about whether California's nuclear power plants can withstand a major quake and tsunami like the ones that rocked Japan.

Japan's disaster is forcing California's leaders to look at what could happen here. And while they said that the state is prepared, there is also room for improvement.

The questions came during a Senate hearing on disaster preparedness. State leaders told a Senate committee hearing that California has suffered about $44 million in damage so far from the tsunami, and praised local response along the coastline for timely evacuations.

"We've invested in sirens along the coast," said Mike Dayton from California Emergency Management Agency. "We've invested in reverse 911 systems."

But clearly, there are still gaps in California's disaster response. In this earthquake prone state, leaders still don't know how many hospital beds would be available.

"We are committed to making as many beds available as possible and pre-identifying them before a catastrophic event," said Dayton. "In the bay area, there is up to 80 percent of some of the hospitals may not be available."

And California has two nuclear plants. One expert worries those facilities aren't built to withstand a good-sized earthquake.

"Our reactors are in the most seismically active area in the world next to Japan," said UC Santa Cruz Nuclear Policy Lecturer Daniel Hirsch. "Ours are in California and they appear to have been designed for earthquakes less than the faults are capable of nearby."

But managers from the Diablo Canyon Power Plant assured lawmakers their reactors are built to withstand the largest earthquake expected in the region. They also already have a tsunami plan in place, with backup power ready to cool down the cores.

In Japan, the backup power washed away.

"Our underground diesel storage tanks are in water tight compartments," said Steve David from Diablo Canyon Power Plant. "They allow us a minimum of seven days electrical power without the need to replenish from outside sources. That was one of the problems at the Fukushima plant."

"What's going on in Japan could happen here," said Hirsch. "If we don't learn the lesson."

In 2008, a battery powering the safety systems at San Onofre had not worked for four years. In 2009, emergency cooling water valves failed at Diablo Canyon. Both these problems were discovered once geologists found new faults near the plants.