News

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.

Multimedia

Audio
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.

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs