Canada's Fukushima: Could a tsunami cause a nuclear disaster in New Brunswick?

The odds might be against a Maritimes quake-triggered giant wave, but it has happened in the past

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      Could Canada have a Fukushima-style nuclear disaster in its future?

      Experts mostly downplay the risk, but the country’s only seaside nuclear power plant, at Point Lepreau, New Brunswick, might be in the line of fire of Atlantic Ocean tsunamis that could overwhelm its meagre defences.

      The March 11, 2011, earthquake-triggered tsunami that hit Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant caused a triple-meltdown catastrophe that released unknown quantities of dangerous radioactive material and is still doing so on a daily basis almost three-and-a-half years later. More than 300,000 people were evacuated, and about 120,000 of them are still not allowed to return to contaminated towns, villages, and farms.

      The local agricultural and fishing industries were devastated. Overall, more than 19,000 people were killed in the quake and tsunami, and nuclear-industry experts, government officials, and environmental groups are still disagreeing over potential future casualties from radiation-induced cancers.

      Point Lepreau the only oceanside nuke

      Canada has 19 operating nuclear reactors that supply about 15 percent of the country’s power. Eighteen of those are at three sites in southern Ontario: Pickering (six), Darlington (four), and Bruce (eight), all within 190 kilometres—some of them much closer—of Greater Toronto, with a population of more than six million, according to the 2011 census. (The Gentilly Nuclear Generating Station in Bécancour, Quebec, shut down in 2012.)

      The single reactor at the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station is 14 metres above sea level on the Bay of Fundy, which has the highest tides in the world.

      Lepreau, which opened commercially in February 1983 and was scheduled for mothballing after 25 years, restarted in 2012 after a four-year shutdown and controversial refurbishing that went $1 billion over budget. The plant is scheduled to run for another 25 years, until 2037.

      Government study shows risk

      But historical data on tsunamis in Atlantic Canada, as well as a scientific government report from only two years ago, suggest that the Lepreau plant might be in harm’s way in the event of a future natural disaster.

      The Canadian Atlantic coast is much more passive, geologically speaking, than the B.C. coast, with its proximity to the so-called Ring of Fire tectonic-plate processes that generate powerful earthquakes.

      The jagged B.C. coastline is also much more susceptible to undersea slippages at river-delta fronts and landslides into steep-sided inlets that can, and have, produced damaging tsunami-style waves.

      Newfoundland hit by tsunami from Portugal

      The Maritimes, though, have been affected by both locally produced tsunamis and those generated far afield. The devastating (estimated at magnitude 8.5) Lisbon earthquake of 1755 created a tsunami that travelled from southwestern Portugal to Newfoundland, where it was observed to drain the Bonavista harbour for a full 10 minutes before refilling it and flooding surrounding meadowlands. Another one hit there six years later.

      The northeast Caribbean area also contains undersea subduction zones that, according to a 2012 Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) tsunami-hazard study, “may present a significant tsunami threat, but the potential hazard is poorly understood, requiring much further study”.

      And according to that GSC study, done for Natural Resources Canada, scientists studying large offshore landslide deposits near the volcanic western Canary Islands know that huge island-flank collapses have periodically occurred there during the past one million years. Computer modelling done in 2001 suggested that enormous tsunami waves, as high as 25 metres on arrival, could radiate across the Atlantic from northwestern Africa as a result of a failure of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma island.

      (The GSC report pointed out that subsequent studies disagreed with some of the original forecast’s wave-amplitude predictions.)

      Depression-era wave pounded the Rock

      But it was an underwater event much closer to New Brunswick, on the eve of the Great Depression, that should provide the most concern.

      On Monday, November 18, 1929, a magnitude 7.2 undersea earthquake struck the southern Grand Banks, about 265 kilometres south of Newfoundland.

      The quake caused a huge underwater landslide—the volume of which has been estimated at between 150 and 200 cubic kilometres—on the Laurentian Continental Slope that pushed waves at speeds of up to 140 kilometres per hour toward southern Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula.

      Water high as nine-storey building

      The first of three waves, measuring between three and seven metres, hit on a clear, moonlit night at about 7:30 p.m. during an unusually high tide. In some narrow bays, the seawater at “runup”, or maximum inundation, hit heights of 13 and, terrifyingly, 27 metres, the height of a nine-storey building. Twenty-eight people lost their lives, and hundreds of buildings and boats were destroyed.

      If the tsunami had arrived a few hours later, while fishing families were sleeping, many more would have died.

      Model showed Halifax inundated

      The GSC tsunami survey noted that Halifax, Nova Scotia, 640 kilometres southwest of the peninsula, recorded only a 1.25-metre wave in the 1929 incident. However, it referenced a 2010 modelling experiment where a 117-cubic-kilometre “slump” caused a 13-metre wave to hit Halifax, located 200 kilometres north of the hypothetical failure. Another test, this time of an 862-cubic-kilometre slide with slump and debris flow, resulted in a disastrous 25-metre tsunami striking the busy port city.

      (Although, again, GSC noted that a procedural element in the simulation “may have overestimated the amplitudes”.)

      Perhaps it should be reiterated here that the Point Lepreau power plant is 14 metres above sea level, with no extraordinary defences against tsunamis (or even sea surges), as is customary in Japan.

      Fukushima wall too low, history ignored

      It should also be noted that the 2011 wave that crippled Fukushima was also 14 metres high. The protective seawall at the Daiichi complex was only 10 metres, even though history showed this would probably be insufficient protection. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA) website, there are records of eight tsunamis with maximum amplitudes greater than 10 metres—in some cases much greater—in that area during the past century.

      The earthquakes that spawned them were all of less magnitude than the monster 9.0 temblor of 2011. A June 1896 regional earthquake (estimated at 8.3) that killed more than 27,000 people generated a tsunami with a runup height of 38 metres.

      As stated by the WNA: “The tsunami countermeasures taken when Fukushima Daiichi was designed and sited in the 1960s were considered acceptable in relation to the scientific knowledge then, with low recorded run-up heights for that particular coastline. But through to the 2011 disaster, new scientific knowledge emerged about the likelihood of a large earthquake and resulting major tsunami of some 15.7 metres at the Daiichi site. However, this had not yet led to any major action by either the plant operator, Tepco, or government regulators…”

      SFU prof warned of undersea slides

      With regard to the likelihood of a destructive tsunami hitting Canada’s Maritime provinces, Simon Fraser University’s John Clague, a geologist and professor in the department of Earth sciences, was the lead author of a 2001 paper titled Tsunami Hazard and Risk in Canada. In it, he acknowledged the Newfoundland tragedy and wrote: “The recurrence interval for an earthquake of the size of the 1929 event is probably between a few hundred years and 1,000 years.

      “Even if an earthquake of this size were to occur off Canada’s east coast, it might not trigger a tsunami unless it vertically displaced a large area of the sea floor. There is a greater risk that such an earthquake could indirectly generate a destructive tsunami by triggering a submarine landslide, as happened in 1929. A large tsunami-generating landslide could also occur independently of an earthquake, although there is no historical precedent for such an event.”

      Massive failures in past

      According to the GSC 2012 tsunami-hazard study, though, huge undersea slope failures have occurred in the past, whether caused by earthquakes or not. “Future submarine landslides along the Atlantic continental slope may also trigger destructive tsunamis; mapping has revealed that mass failures much larger than the 1929 slide have occurred in the past.”

      All of which brings us back to Point Lepreau.

      After Fukushima, the federal Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), which regulates the use of nuclear energy and materials, put together a “robust four-year action plan to ensure we’re prepared for the most extreme events”, according to an in-house interview with the commission’s Luc Sigouin, director of emergency management programs.

      Feds say Canadian reactors safe

      In that same April 17, 2014, article, Sigouin also said: “Even though tsunamis and very large earthquakes are not events that are likely to occur in Ontario or New Brunswick—where Canada’s operating nuclear plants are located—we’ve taken concrete steps to ensure we’re ready to respond to the most extreme accident scenarios.”

      Most of those steps appear to be related to emergency responsiveness, though. Sigouin said that a task force of experts determined that “Canada’s major nuclear facilities are safe, and that our regulatory oversight was comprehensive”.

      Lepreau upgrades completed

      CBC News reported on April 10 this year that a scheduled 45-day maintenance outage at Lepreau starting this May was partially to “implement improvements related to emergency preparedness that were identified by the nuclear industry following the accident at Fukushima”. CBC previously reported that safety upgrades included a new ventilation system to counter hydrogen explosions and a backup water line for cooling the reactor if the power goes out.

      On April 29, Moncton’s News 91.9 interviewed Lepreau station manager Wade Parker regarding earthquake safety measures, including a filtered vent system and water take-up lines. Parker said that even though the plant was unlikely to experience a Fukushima-level event, “we are safer by some of these design changes we made.…We have procedures in place to address…not some of these issues [but] all of these issues.”

      News 91.9 reported: “Parker says Lepreau stands 14 metres above sea level, which is more than adequate to withstand a storm surge, which he says we are more likely to experience than a tsunami.”

      Quakes not unknown in NB

      But as anti-nuclear activist and University of Moncton professor Ronald Babin told Canadian Press just five days after the Japan tsunami: “If you would have asked the Japanese people about 10 days ago if there was any danger of that kind, they would have said everything was okay. They had put the [backup] generators behind a wall that was supposed to protect them. They thought they had all the bases covered.”

      Back in April 2011, Lepreau security manager Paul Thompson told CBC that station staff would “never expect” a Fukushima-style emergency because of the plant’s height above sea level and the region’s record of low seismic activity. Seismologist Ken Burke, though, speaking for the Conservation Council of New Brunswick in its opposition to the CNSC granting Lepreau a new five-year operating licence, testified at a public hearing in December 2011 that nearby Passamaquoddy Bay experienced a magnitude 6.0 quake in 1904.

      Earthquake "swarm" under Atlantic

      And John Ebel, an Earth-sciences professor at Boston College, gave an April 2013 presentation to the Seismological Society of America’s annual meeting that warned about the possibility of tsunamis hitting close by in the northeast U.S.

      He said that a “swarm” of 15 undersea earthquakes that occurred in April 2012 about 270 kilometres east of Boston (a similar distance from Lepreau and almost directly south, which would negate the shielding effect of Nova Scotia in the event of a tsunami) was similar to the seismic activity that preceded the 1929 Grand Banks disaster.

      Ebel said more research is necessary to properly assess the hazard potential. This echoes Clague’s research suggestion in his study's conclusion, and it is a repeated recommendation of the detailed GSC assessment.

      The risk might be low, and the odds against a Point Lepreau disaster might be high. But talk about odds is something you’d expect from gamblers.

      And gamblers almost always lose.



      bill jones

      Jul 19, 2014 at 9:00am

      Actually had FUKU regulator required the waterproofing of the diesels, fuel tanks and switch gear like Canada's best in the world regulator, there would have been no problem even with the reduced sized seawall.

      Note that worldwide 6 million folks die annually from fossil air pollution, a situation France was able nearly resolve when it went from near nothing to than 75% nuclear giving it almost the cheapest electricity in Europe. Coal burning Germany with already double the power rates of France plans to double them again in achieving France's low ago standard by 2050 using wind and solar, at cost of over 100 million air pollution deaths if adopted world wide not to mention a possible multibillion death event from a fast approaching climate disaster

      Makes the zero deaths standard of FUKU, as certified by the UN Science committee UNSCEAR. seem like divine intervention by comparison.

      Christopher O'Loughlin

      Jul 19, 2014 at 9:19am

      Risk is low experts agree of Tsunami landfall at Point Lepreau. Odds are like risks in that gamblers of all stripes are willing to bet and there will be winners and losers of any future event. Hind sight is always 20/20. Experts are quoted just 5 days prior to 3/11 Tsunami that landed in Fukushima approximately 14 meters high that no foreseeable event was of safety concern. Now we are witness to Unit 1, 2, 3, reactor cores molten meltdown spewing radiation some plutonium from unit 3 MOX fueled reactor. Hell freezes over or if you believe TEPCO they will freeze FUKUSHIMA. Yes there are liars and then there are Liars. TEPCO is incapable of freezing anything but free speech. Muon Energy Location Technology (MELT) has located Fukushima reactor cores melted below the containment vessels contaminating adjacent water table flowing to the ocean hundreds of yards away. TEPCO has not released that secret information freezing the truth. Risk or odds Fukushima lost the bet. Unbelievably TEPCO is still gambling spending every cent they can barrow from the gov't taxpayers to risk future communities with meltdowns lobbying to restart all the nuclear power plants they own. Can New Brunswick can do better than gamble with Point Lepreau?

      400 ppm

      Jul 19, 2014 at 10:32am

      Could any party in any OECD county get elected telling its citizens that effective immediately they had to consume %10-50 less electricity/energy?

      What would happen to the GS if Monday the 21st it ceased most of its electronic/electrical activities (web, email, smartphone, etc), relying only on print?

      Martin Dunphy

      Jul 19, 2014 at 2:06pm

      bill jones:

      Are you, by any chance, the Bill Jones from Texas who is the co-owner of a company involved in a controversial nuclear-waste-disposal facility?
      And the UNSCEAR report will not be given a shred of credence by anyone not connected with the nuclear industry, I'm afraid.


      Jul 19, 2014 at 8:55pm

      OMG bill, you have got to be kidding. Other pollutions are comparable to radioactive contamination? An you believe there is no adverse health effects that will be felt over ALL of japan over the next 10 years? Just watch, and more then likely you will be able to experince the agony of what possible contamination brings to the human physic.

      As for nuclear. There is no way that nuclear should of been allowed outside of the lab till we could control it, 100%. Have a way to take care of the waste that does not endanger human exsistance. Without reaching these 2 requirement then it is too dangerous to use for anything outside of the lab. There is no way to make our present setups safe, and all can go out of control, and easily reach the point of out of our ablity to deal with. As long as that is possible. Human exsistance is a day to day deal.

      New Clear Free Solutiuons

      Jul 20, 2014 at 10:53am

      Thank you Martin for writing this well researched article. I would like to provide a little bit more background information on it though.


      This article doesn’t mention that NB Power is currently doing a site specific tsunami hazard study, and the results should be release later this year. This is a result of complaints from myself that NB Power had underestimated the risk. There is also a site specific seismic study due to be released later this year. The seismic study was ordered my the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission after a request from myself at the 2011 licencing hearings. The preliminary results of the seismic study show that NB Power had underestimated the risk of a large accident cause by an earthquake by a factor of 40. After complaints from myself about NB Powers interpretation of the preliminary results of the seismic study the CNSC initiated the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to perform a “Site & External Events Design” (SEED) review service mission for all Canadian NPPs.In addition to the tsunami study and seismic study, NB Power is also reviewing the risk from high winds. All of these studies should have been done for refurbishment, but where not, and now not only pose a significant safety risk they also pose a huge financial risk to NB Power for possible upgrades they may have to make.

      The article also mentions that Lepreau is 14 meters above sea level. This is 14 meters above “mean” sea level, and with the highest tides in the world the water can be much higher than this. Also 14 meters is the “average” height of Lepreau. On the side of Lepreau, that is closest to the Bay of Fundy, is only around 10 meters above mean sea level. This side has the secondary control room, emergency generators, Emergency Core Cooling Pumps (In a pit below grade), and emergency filtered vent.

      These studies are part of Canada’s Fukushima Action Plan. The action item pertaining to external events like earthquakes and tsunami’s was originally closed for Point Lepreau, but after complaints from myself, they have been reopened at the 2012 annual CNSC meeting. There are many other very serious problems not being seriously addressed in the Fukushima Action plan.


      Martin Dunphy

      Jul 20, 2014 at 12:25pm

      New Clear:

      Thanks for this. If you can tell me where to find the preliminary results of the CNSC site-specific seismic study, that would be helpful as well.

      I am familiar with the tides in the Bay of Fundy, of course, which is why I mentioned them prominently up top. That is also why I wrote about the unusually high tides the day of the 1929 Newfoundland tsunami.
      Congrats on your local activism. When you show results, you encourage others to question decisions made on such serious matters, all the way up the chain.


      Jul 20, 2014 at 1:28pm

      Arto Lauri - Kevind D Blanch - Lauren Moret ,all think its a little worse than most people think or are discussing. Like it's being avoided.

      Cancer seems to be the new "flu".
      In Ontario, Leukemia in children so common now there are already have support groups and corporate sponsored charities. Tim Hortons sponsored a backyard playground build for one of my neighbors kid that has been diagnosed with leukemia at 5yrs old.
      Drugstores now boast of their walls of diabetes medication.
      Poison surrounds us No nuclear plant is safe. Especially when they're loaded with weapons grade fuel
      No one seems to cover that

      @400 ppm

      Jul 20, 2014 at 1:54pm

      Well, that suggests democracy is the problem. All sorts of little morons, most of whom couldn't do highschool physics, let alone nuclear physics, who will vote for whoever gives them the most wifi or cellphone coverage or whatever it is that their moronic little heads want. Democracy is an ideology that, under industrial conditions, legitimates the destruction of the natural world for short-term gains that are not even enjoyable by anyone with a smattering of brains. Democracy might work for small, ever-warring middle-eastern city-states. It might not. But it is beyond question it is a foolish way of ordering industrial nations. Too bad it is so profitable on the quarterly basis!

      J Robert Janes

      Jul 20, 2014 at 2:53pm

      Please consider Hurricane Hazel in Toronto on Lake Ontario , and the Pickering nuclear plant . In the 1950s Hurricane Hazel produced tsunami-type waves that flooded the Don and Humber river valleys and others , causing massive damage and tragic loss of 86 lives.