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US Energy Experts Learn from Japan's Ordeal

Earthquake, tsunami wreaked havoc on energy, transportation

In the event of a major US earthquake, gasoline resupply may be dependent on petroleum barges like this one.
In the event of a major US earthquake, gasoline resupply may be dependent on petroleum barges like this one.

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Tom Banse

One year after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, U.S. energy experts are drawing critical lessons from that country's ordeal, especially since the Pacific coast of the United States and Canada is prone to the same kind of earthquake.

The tsunami’s widespread destruction and the partial meltdown it triggered at the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant have garnered the most attention.

But the twin disasters also wreaked havoc on the region’s energy and transportation systems, and created an extra measure of hardship for residents and emergency aid workers.

In some places, gasoline to fuel cars, trucks and generators was unavailable for weeks.

Tokyo University earthquake researcher Kenji Satake explored the Japanese quake zone last year, after the initial emergency response had wound down. A year later, speaking at a scientific conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, he recalled the long waits to refill his car's gas tank.

"We needed to wait at least a half hour, sometimes more than an hour to get gas," Satake says. "There was a long line for the gas station."

Collateral effects

After the earthquake, two oil refineries caught fire and burned for days. In other places, fuel shortages hindered emergency response teams.

Fuel tank transported by the tsunami in Onagawa, Japan.
Fuel tank transported by the tsunami in Onagawa, Japan.

Those collateral effects are very much on the mind of Althea Rizzo, hazards coordinator at Oregon's Emergency Management Office, where planning is under way for a major quake and tsunami as powerful as those last year in Japan.

Rizzo expects the Pacific Northwest to be in similar shape - or even worse -- after the "Big One" hits.

"From the refinery to the gas tank there's all sorts of points along that way that are going to be prone to failure," Rizzo says. "The gasoline that you have in your car is probably going to be the gasoline you'll have for the next two to three months."

Energy lifelines

That's a worst-case scenario. Rizzo says the resilience of energy "lifelines" is a keystone to recovery from an earthquake. In the U.S., the majority of such critical infrastructure is privately owned.

For instance, the oil company BP owns refineries. It also operates a 650-kilometer distribution system called the Olympic Pipe Line, which supplies much of the gasoline and jet fuel for western Washington and Oregon.

BP's director of external affairs in the Northwest is Bill Kidd, who is confident the region's oil refineries will survive a major earthquake.

According to Kidd, the BP pipeline is designed to shut down automatically in a megaquake. However, he concedes it would take "a while" for the oil flow to be restored.

"I don't want to be Polyanna-ish [excessively optimistic] about it, but neither do I want to be Doomsday-ish," Kidd says. "We have a lot of people who can weld. We have a lot of material here to be able to fix things."

Power system

Kidd says speedy restoration of fuel supplies after a quake would depend on other damaged structures and services being repaired, such as collapsed bridges, severed roads and, especially, electric power outages.

Gas pipelines and fuel retailers all need electricity to operate.

"I am much more concerned about the high voltage power system throughout the Northwest and then obviously the lower voltages that feed down and get to us and run our pump stations along the line," he says. "There's a huge question whether or not we'll have power to run whatever is left, that's our biggest issue."

The state of Washington has an emergency coordinator, Mark Anderson, specifically assigned to energy sector resilience. He says that, based on past disasters, there's one thing to remember about the inevitable shortages of fuel: people won't need as much of it for a while.

"For example, the same snowstorm/ice storm that takes out supply of fuel also takes the roads out," Anderson says, "people can't drive from place to place."

Getting moving on upgrades

In Oregon, state agencies are prodding energy suppliers to assess their vulnerability to a magnitude 9 earthquake and use that information to get moving on structural or equipment upgrades.

Farther down the Pacific Coast, in California, the nuclear dimensions of the Japanese disaster loom large.  Anti-nuclear campaigners are drawing parallels between the ill-fated Fukushima complex and a pair of nuclear power plants on the California coast.

They cite the similar ages of the reactors and their locations facing the ocean on active earthquake faults. The plant operators insist their facilities are safe and that California needs the energy. They say they'll prove their case during upcoming license extension hearings.

But with the memories of Fukushima’s partial meltdown still fresh one year later, opponents are circulating petitions they hope will bring the future of nuclear power in California to a statewide vote later this year.

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