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The Lotto of a Fukushima-style Nuclear Disaster

It is a scary world and getting scarier every day. I live in the small town of Kennedale, Texas. Population: 7,068. We are just south of Fort Worth (whose city motto is: “Where the West Begins”), but just north of Mansfield, a fast-growing suburb. My family lives within the danger zone of two nuclear power plants, and two more whose construction have been postponed. Were Comanche Peak (1&2) to experience some kind of disaster like that in Fukushima, Japan—whose reactor was severely damaged in a 2011 earthquake—we would be up radiologically-contaminated Shit Creek without a paddle.

Across the street from my home is a hydraulic fracturing well. What do these wells and nuclear power plants have in common? More than most North Texans may realize.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a process where wastewater is used to fracture hard rock, like shale, in order to get to the oil and gas below by injecting it down into the ground at high pressures. A huge amount of natural gas has been discovered underneath the Barnett Shale here in the Fort Worth Basin. Over the last several years more than 50,000 of these drilling wells have sprouted up all across the state.

The dangers with these wells are there are some 600 chemicals used in the waste water, some of the carcinogenic and toxic. But there is a growing body of data showing the process is linked to earthquakes (also, see here and here and here). Cliff Frohlich, a research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin, has explained it as “the air hockey table model”: “You have an air hockey table, suppose you tilt it, if there’s no air on, the puck will just sit there. Gravity wants it to move but it doesn’t because there friction [with the table surface] . . . Faults are the same.” The injection of the water allows the faults to slip more easily, producing the obvious results we have witnessed: earthquakes.

In the last six years, since the fracking boom began, 60% of the earthquakes in Texas (93 of 153) have been here in North Texas. While Earthquake Track goes back only 38 years, between 7-38 years ago there were no earthquakes here. None. Nada. Zilch. Zero. In fact, from 7-38 years ago there were only 70 earthquakes in all of Texas. In a six year span there were 25% more earthquakes here in North Texas than that 28 year period for the entire state! For the state as a whole, seismic activity has increased more than 100% in six years, as compared to a 32-year period.

In the aftermath of the earthquake that damaged the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, Japan,  we can turn to a 2010 U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission study that calculated the odds of an earthquake strong enough to damage the reactor core of the two Comanche Peak plants in nearby Glen Rose, Texas. According to NBC, which covered the study, there is a “1 in 250,000 chance each year” of such a catastrophe. To get an idea of how things have worsened for us here, the old estimate, based on earthquake data as of 1989, was 1 in 833,333. The change in risk: 233%. The NRC’s data is as of 2008. Earthquakes have escalated over the last five years, especially in Cleburne, Texas, which is only twenty miles east of Comanche Peak on US-67 (in fact, there have been 16 earthquakes in Cleburne over the last five years). The probability of an earthquake producing a nuclear disaster is certainly greater.

According to Luminant, the Texas-based utility company that operates Comanche Peak, “Nuclear power is a safe, dependable, clean-air energy.” Of course they make a lot of money off of the nuclear power plant. But considering the recent spate of earthquakes in Azle and Mineral Wells, I am not sure I feel as safe and comfortable as they do. Here in the Lone Star State the odds of winning the Lotto Texas are 1 in 25 million. How safe are we when we are more than 100x more likely to experience a nuclear disaster brought on by an earthquake than we are to win the lottery?

By the way, this is not just limited to Texas. Our neighbors are having the same problems. In the last ten years there have been 691 earthquakes in Oklahoma, with 669 in the last six years, since they too began fracking for gas. And, to their east, and my Northeast, the same pattern holds for Arkansas: over the last decade there have been 424 earthquakes in Arkansas, with 407 occurring in the last six years.

And remember, up until these wells were dug and drilling began, we in North Texas did not have earthquakes. This is the price we pay to have carbon-spewing semi-trucks—adding a climate-changing insult to the still-thawing injury we have dubbed “Icemageddon”—carrying millions of gallons of carcinogenic and toxic wastewater to tens of thousands of wells all across the state in order to fracture hard rock two miles underground so that private multi-billion dollar companies like Chesapeake Energy can make a buck or two: profits over people.

Michael McGehee is an independent writer from North Texas. He can be reached at michael.mcgehee7@gmail.com 

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