NEWS

Experts Worry More About Aging Infrastructure Than Nuclear Plants if "Big One" Occurs in Heartland

By Matthew Harwood

Fifteen nuclear power plants lie in the Midwest's earthquake-prone area known as the New Madrid Seismic Zone, but experts say the area's residents should worry more about aging infrastructure than the safety of those plants.

Affecting eight states in America's heartland, the New Madrid Seismic Zone has been rocked by massive earthquakes in the past. In 1812, the zone accounted for the largest U.S. quake ever recorded in the 48 contiguous states: an 8.0-magnitude monster—which is still approximately ten times smaller and 31.6 times weaker than Japan's earthquake, according to the calculator at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

"I would say Americans should actually be very comfortable (about) those plants," Jeff King, interim director of the Nuclear Science and Engineering Program at the Colorado School of Mines and a former Department of Energy nuclear facility on-site inspector, told FOX News.

He said the crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear facility had more to do with the tsunami than the massive 8.9-magnitude earthquake.

"The distinction, the earthquake and the tsunami is kind of an important one," King said. "The plant survived the earthquake with minimal problems, there's some questions about the spent fuel pools, but minimal problems, and then it was an hour later when the tsunami hit and they lost all of the their backup power."

Since there are no tsunami threats to the America's heartland, the real concern among experts has to do with weaker structures not built to withstand large quakes.

Robert Williams, a scientist with the USGS's Hazards Team, told FOX News that a large earthquake inside the New Madrid Seismic Zone would look more like the recent earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, rather than northern Japan.

"Christchurch has a building infrastructure that's a lot like what you find in the central U.S. main street, 100-year-old brick buildings, no reinforcement, no consideration of earthquake shaking," Williams said.

It's a worry that Assistant Editor Joseph Straw reported on in 2008:

While rarer than those along the West Coast, severe earthquakes in the Midwest pose a broader risk, experts say, for a few reasons. First, few buildings, even new ones, are built to withstand tremors like those along the Pacific Rim. Second, the soft, silty soil of the Mississippi basin is more prone to “liquefaction” than that in the West. Third, bedrock in the East carries seismic waves farther than bedrock west of the Rocky Mountains. The 1812 quake, for example, rang church bells in Boston.

One city that would likely sustain considerable damage if another massive earthquake strikes is Memphis, Tennessee, according to a USGS fact sheet from 2009 (.pdf).

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