Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
For New York, A Slim Chance of Quake Damage
Monday, March 14, 2011
Given that New York City is a coastal metropolis only a few dozen miles downriver from a nuclear power plant, the recent disaster in Japan raises some questions about what impact seismic activity would have on our neck of the woods.
According to Dr. Allan Ludman, who chairs the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Queens College, City University of New York, the likelihood of a significant earthquake is tiny. But it's there.
"Anyone who says there's no chance is foolish," said Dr. Ludman. "The chances are small."
That's because most earthquakes take place at the boundary between tectonic plates. New York City, and the rest of the state, are smack dab in the middle of the North American tectonic plate-- which is not to say the region is totally out of harm's way. Many small fault lines, however minor, underlie the city and state; large ones reach into Connecticut and down from New England.
So there's still a chance that New York could experience a significant earthquake, and there always will be. But Ludman said that none of the faults in question are large and active enough to be cause for concern. While some have raised questions about the potential damage caused by several small faults shifting in unison, Ludman said expecting even one to move is a long shot.
"These faults have not moved as far as we can tell for, 60, 70, 100 million years," Dr. Ludman said. "They're there, and potential zones of weakness in the future, but they've not had anything happen along them for that long, so most of us would say these faults are not capable. We would not expect them to move."
The crisis at Japan's Fukushima plant has re-exposed the nuclear industry to concerns that it threatens public health, especially when confronted with unpredictable natural disasters. In addition to the low probability of experiencing a quake, New Yorkers can also take some comfort in the design of the Indian Point power plant.
Indian Point was forced to control for a disaster of similar relative magnitude, according to Dr. Ludman. Residents of Buchanan, NY, where the plant is now situated, were staunchly opposed to its construction. One of the arguments against building the plant in that location was its proximity to the Ramapo fault, which runs through Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. The dispute was eventually brought to court, where a judge was unconvinced by the seismic worries, but ruled that the plant had to be built to withstand earthquakes stronger even than the ones we could reasonably expect.
"When they engineered, they engineered for 7-7.5 [on the Richter scale]," Ludman said. "I think that was because they felt it was at least 1 or 1.5 orders of magnitude greater than anything that could really be anticipated."
The bottom line for worrisome New Yorkers? There's no need for alarm. Dr. Ludman says he "would not lose sleep tonight."
Map of nuclear reactors in the United States, via The Takeaway.