FEATURE: On Shaky Ground

By on March 8, 2016

From a nuclear facility to the valley’s remoteness, what factors play a role in the seismic side of Jackson Hole?


Idaho Falls, Idaho – The pale blue glow of tritium pulsed beneath me. I was captivated by the radioactive chemical’s cobalt hue, spearing the dark waters 20 feet below. As I took a step closer, my guide at the Idaho National Laboratory, Don Miley, put his hand out. “If you fall in, someone’s going to get to know you real well,” he said. “We’re talking nooks and crannies.”

I eyed the warning line barring me from the waters. The only people who cross that barrier are men and women in protective clothing, wearing elastic gloves that will eventually become soft nuclear waste. In the next room, the test reactor was vibrating, a reminder that we were in the heart of one of the most advanced nuclear facilities in the United States. This water causeway is where the lab’s orphan “hot waste” cools while INL workers figure out what to do with it.

With the 2011 cataclysmic meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant—triggered by the Tohoku earthquake—still in cleanup mode, and Jackson Hole downwind of INL, the likelihood of a big earthquake in the area had compelled me to explore INL’s facility. My recent visit there was interesting timing. While the vast majority of earthquakes in the valley barely register on the Richter Scale, on February 26 a magnitude 4.0 earthquake shook the Gros Ventre Range about 18 miles east of Jackson. It was a reminder that Jackson is hemmed in by seismically active mountain ranges.

Indeed, the Greater Yellowstone Region is one of the most seismically active areas in the country. Earthquakes here happen much more frequently than the vast majority of Jacksonites suspect. The U.S. Geological Service routinely records from 1,000 to 3,000 quakes a year in Yellowstone National Park. In disaster scenarios mocked up by USGS, myriad faults could potentially cause damage to Jackson, from the Teton Fault—at the base of the Teton Mountain Range—to the Upper Yellowstone Valley Fault System, Hoback Fault, Greys River Fault System, Grand Valley Fault System, East Mount Sheridan Fault System and Eagle Bay Fault System.

So what would Jackson look like in the wake of a major natural disaster? How would the valley’s remoteness and proximity to a nuclear plant play a role? And just how prepared is Jackson for the big one?

A cautionary tale from Japan

Fukushima is a real life example of a worst possible earthquake scenario. In 2011, off the coast of Japan, the Tohoku earthquake (magnitude 9.0) set off a tsunami with waves that reached 188 feet. The earthquake itself is reported to have shifted the entire island of Honshu eight feet to the east. Upon impact, the second worst nuclear accident in history took place. By the time the tsunami reached the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, the waters were nearly 50 feet high, breaching the plant’s 19-foot sea wall with ease. The waters poured into the facility’s basement, which disabled the backup diesel generators.

Without generators to cool the reactors, three of them began to overheat, eventually completely melting down and releasing approximately 940 Petabecquerel (PBq) of radiation (about a tenth of Chernobyl). The International Nuclear Events Scale rated both accidents a 7 (highest level: major accident) due to the massive radiation released.

An estimated 32 million people were exposed to radiation, and eventually a mass evacuation was set in motion, displacing approximately 400,000 people. There are still some 250,000 displaced people to this day.

Five years later, Fukushima remains an environmental quagmire. Officials at the facility have yet to find a permanent solution for cooling the three melted reactor cores. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “Cooling water is continuously poured over the melted cores of units 1, 2, and 3 to keep the fuel from overheating and melting again. The water drains into building basements, where it mixes with groundwater. To reduce the amount of contaminated water seeping into the ocean, TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) collects and stores it in 10-meter-tall steel tanks.”

Five years laters, Tokyo Electric Power company is still struggling to cool melted reactor cores from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown. (Photo: wikipedia commons)

Five years laters, Tokyo Electric Power company is still struggling to cool melted reactor cores from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear meltdown. (Photo: wikipedia commons)

Fukushima plant manager Akira Ono recently described Fukushima as “stable.”

“In the last five years, radiation levels have been reduced substantially,” he told The Washington Post. But stable does not necessarily mean under control. The process might be well-rehearsed after five years of practice, but the practices themselves are still detrimental as the question of storing radioactive water becomes more serious. TEPCO estimates it will need to provide storage for an additional 60,000 tons of water throughout 2016 to keep the reactors cool.

According to the Japan Times, TEPCO is working on new research technology to cleanse the radioactive water. Tritium is the key isotope that needs to be removed in order to make the water safe. At the turn of last year, TEPCO released its first batch of cleansed nuclear water into the Pacific Ocean. But officials there are hesitant to release the 680,000 tons of still highly radioactive liquid waste initially used to cool the failing reactors.

Peter Wynn Kirby is a nuclear and environmental specialist at the University of Oxford. In his opinion, Japan has barely even begun to address the radiation contamination problem Fukushima has caused. Kirby wrote in The New York Times this week, “Japan’s ‘decontamination’ plan for Fukushima is so fiendishly complicated that its goals cannot possibly be met within the promised 30 years. And that’s only to talk about the waste that has been collected.”

Kirby described the current waste management policy as a game of “Pass the Parcel,” only that parcel is millions of tons of nuclear waste, and it is being passed from short term holding facility to short term holding facility. Isolation efforts have been nigh on inconsequential in the grand scheme of things with zero industry put toward long term storage. Without a properly constructed storage and disposal plan (let alone storage facility), Japan will continue to sit on a hotbed of carcinogenic and mutagenic substances with no other strategy in place than waiting out the naturally-occurring half-life decomposition of radioactive substances.

From East to West

The Idaho National Laboratory is arguably nestled in a much safer area of the world. “There won’t be any tsunamis around here,” Miley joked. Located in the arid Idaho desert,  the facility is walled in by seismically active mountains, but the Snake River Plain, where INL is located is classified as “aseismic.” This means the plain registers as having little or no seismic activity. It’s mostly due to the basaltic layers that formed in a “cake layer pattern” of basalt and topsoil cushioning the plain from seismic activity. In fact, the ‘83 Borah earthquake (7.3 magnitude) was a major event that barely disrupted activity at INL, though the epicenter of the earthquake was located just 58 miles northwest of the Advanced Test Reactor.

Seismicity might not be an inherent risk there, but the facility has still exceeded seismic standards for the area. The Idaho Association of Building Officials rates the entire Idaho Falls area as Seismic Building Code D, which roughly translates to stringent structural integrity for those “buildings and structures in areas expected to experience severe and destructive ground shaking but NOT located close to a major fault.”

INL has variable building codes based on the location of each structure. Miley explained, “Our facilities are built to the Department of Energy standards for seismicity, based on the region in which the DOE building or structure is placed. Older facilities that were built prior to current standards but are still operational must meet the current standards. Scientists like Dr. [Suzette] Payne [the lab’s seismic expert] review new standards and then work with facility experts to determine whether or not INL facilities meet those standards. If not, we are required to begin making upgrades.”

Ryan Krueger was one of the last sentinels standing at the nonprofit Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free. KYNF was a nuclear watchdog for the Yellowstone area, and while the organization maintained a nuclear-neutral stance, neither promoting nor opposing nuclear energy, the nonprofit has voiced concerns about the nuclear facility’s close proximity to the valley. Jackson Hole is directly downwind from INL, leaving it vulnerable to radiation pollution should a major disaster affect the plant. “Some catastrophic failure of some system, with that type of complexity, was always a concern,” Krueger said. “But it was always the radiological threats—things that would contribute to the air quality—that we were really concerned about.”

The striking terrain of the Teton Mountain Range is a product of vertical movement that transpired on the 44-mile Teton Fault.

The striking terrain of the Teton Mountain Range is a product of vertical movement that transpired on the 44-mile Teton Fault.

Krueger and staffers at the nonprofit Snake River Alliance both believe it is not the major meltdown that is the most pressing threat from INL, but the daily release of pollutants into the air, groundwater, and earth.

While INL did pump highly diluted radioactive water into the ground until the early 80s, Miley claims that it was in smaller levels than those found occurring in nature. INL’s Environmental Oversight Program, he explained, ensures that air pollutants are strictly monitored. The program constantly monitors air, water, terrestrial, and external radiation samples from various locations surrounding the plant to make sure it is in compliance with the EPA’s National Emissions Standards for Hazardous Air Pollutants.

Pollution standards for INL, Miley alleges, are very strict. “INL is overseen by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality,” he said. “In all cases, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has supreme oversight, but states are allowed to implement controls and oversight as long as their rules are as stringent as EPA’s. If they are more stringent, then the state’s laws are the standard, but states cannot be lower than EPA’s.”

However, the grassroots organization Kootenai Environmental Alliance claims that the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality does not have a great track record when it comes to administering guidelines for the Clean Water Act. According to a KEA report: “Of  5,747 distinct waterways in Idaho, 2,108 have insufficient data to determine the threshold question of whether Clean Water Act standards are being met. That corresponds to 33,523 miles of rivers and 186,677 acres of freshwater lakes that have insufficient monitoring data or any other information on which to determine what measures, if any, are needed to protect those waterways.”

Are we ready?

This week, on the heels of the Gros Ventre earthquake, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is set to approve the Jackson/Teton County’s new Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan. Rich Ochs, Teton County Emergency Management coordinator, has been working tirelessly compiling potential disaster data for the area. He has used the data to put together plans for nearly every disaster eventuality that could occur. With these plans in place, properly preparing for, responding to, and mitigating those occurrences will hopefully become a structured, manageable prospect. For Ochs, one type of disaster stands out among the rest. “Our big nightmare scenario is a large earthquake with cascading events like landslides, blackouts, and fires,” he said.

In the disaster mitigation plan, Ochs posits that a scenario similar to the deadly 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake would cause catastrophic damage to Jackson. Should the Jackson Lake Dam break due to seismic activity, the sudden onslaught of water could bury homes all along the Snake River. An event like that would leave Moose, Wilson, and Hoback—nearly 847,000 acres—swimming in water.

Teton County’s “Are You Prepared?” report states, “In the event of [Jackson Lake Dam] failure, a wall of water would pass below Moran within 30 minutes, engulf Park facilities at Moose within five hours, flood all homes in the Snake River Plain, bury Wilson in 12 to 18 feet of water within eight and a half hours, and flood the highway in Snake River Canyon in the vicinity of Fall Creek Road in 14 hours.”

In 2010, HAZUS (Hazards U.S.) crafted several scenarios that predicted the fallout of a major earthquake along the Teton Fault. According to the report, anywhere from 30 to 40 people would require hospitalization. Disrupted roadways and a loss of functionality for EMS and medical care could prevent these injured people from receiving medical attention making more injuries life-threatening, the report stated.

The study projected that Teton County could lose $370 million in structural assets. Damage to highways and bridges could result in approximately $43 million, and loss of utilities at an additional $3.5 million. These damages could potentially cripple the local economy. A study by the U.S. Small Business Administration predicted that potentially a quarter of small businesses in the county would permanently shut down after a major disaster.

“Obviously, we can’t prevent earthquakes,” Ochs said. “We live in such a beautiful area because of geological activity. And that makes it our responsibility to be educated about those hazards in order to mitigate their impact.”

But Ochs is concerned that residents are not adequately prepared for a natural disaster. “FEMA recommends that individuals are prepared for last at least three days with supplies of food, water, and oxygen when facing a natural disaster,” Ochs explained. “Keep in mind, that’s about a gallon of water per person, per a day.” Because Jackson is so isolated, however, Ochs suggests valley residents stock a week’s worth.

In the comprehensive disaster mitigation plan, first responders are advised to help their loved ones first, extending the timeframe of when help would arrive to other residents. “We would rely heavily on the state, the federal government, even Idaho for assistance, and it could be a while before they get here,” Ochs said.

But preparedness is not easy for this mountain town. Jackson has a nearly non-existent growth cycle for food. According to the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, 96 percent of Jackson’s food is imported, leaving its citizens vulnerable to food scarcity. Major power outages, roadway damage, and communications system failures would all impact first responders’ ability to assist victims.

Preparing for the effects of a major earthquake is the real goal of the mitigation plan.  One of the most important aspects of the plan is Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or VOAD. This conglomerate includes places of worship, nonprofits, rotary clubs, even the Elks Club, all coming together to play their individually unique roles.

“Let’s say there are five churches set up to house people, but none to feed them. This system ensures that we don’t duplicate efforts,” Ochs noted. The way VOAD is currently set up, one organization could focus on housing, another on food, another on medical, and they all could pool resources. “Recovery is not just cops and firefighters; it’s a coordinated effort from the whole community,” Ochs said.

Quakes and calderas

On the Richter Scale, 4.0 earthquakes like the one in the Gros Ventre that shook the valley in February, stand on the inconsequential side of the spectrum. But in Jackson, where thoughts of the Yellowstone Caldera and imminent, fiery doom lurk, quakes of any kind leave aftershocks of question. According to USGS’s “Did You Feel It” website, more than 140 people across the valley reported feeling last month’s quake, and talk of the event was a constant background chatter after the plates stilled.

In the event of a major earthquake, the Jackson Lake Dam could release enough water to drown Moose, Wilson and Hoback. (Photo: wikipedia commons)

In the event of a major earthquake, the Jackson Lake Dam could release enough water to drown Moose, Wilson and Hoback. (Photo: wikipedia commons)

Peter Cervelli reviews geological data around the Yellowstone area for USGS. He likes to point out that signs of this area’s seismicity are all around us. “In an area like [the Tetons] even though there’s no volcanism, earthquakes are a real threat,” he said. “You’re not in California, but the Tetons didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Those are very new, young mountains that have been pushed up pretty quickly, almost certainly occurring from earthquakes. Not all of it from earthquakes, of course, but one big earthquake and the mountain might move 10 feet.” The Teton Fault, Cervelli says, certainly presents a serious potential earthquake hazard.

While earthquakes have not caused fatalities in the region for more than 50 years, when they do shake, their cascading effects are deadly, causing fatalities and major property damage. In 1959, a 7.3 earthquake barreled through Hebgen Lake, Montana, leaving 28 dead, and in today’s dollars, structural damage that totaled more than $88 million.

The earthquake’s epicenter was about 15 miles northwest of Yellowstone National Park.  The event is still considered the most damaging Yellowstone earthquake on record. Homes shifted off their axes, pipelines burst, and roads were destroyed. The vast majority of the fatalities were due to a rockslide that dammed up the Madison River, causing Quake Lake to form in a matter of weeks. The rockslide carried 80,000,000 tons of debris down Madison Canyon, burying unsuspecting campers along the way.

Although Yellowstone’s seismicity has been destructive in the past, Cervelli says right now the area is quiet. “While I don’t go much further back than a decade, in terms of ground deformation, this calm follows a period of pretty exciting activity from 2013 to the end of 2015,” he explained. “There was an interesting ground swelling episode at Norris Geyser Basin that culminated in a large 4.8 earthquake in late March of 2014.” After that, the ground subsided. “People have used the term ‘breathing,’” Cervelli said. While not a perfect analogy, it describes the compression and recession of plate tectonics.

Monitoring geological trends in the park is a big part of Cervelli’s job. “There’s no sign of abnormal activity as long as I’ve been measuring,” Cervelli said. He believes with proper instruments and good scientists monitoring data, predicting a major geological occurrence is absolutely possible. Right now, he is confident Yellowstone is running business as usual.

Of course talk of Yellowstone’s seismicity usually leads to discussion about the underground supervolcano, otherwise known as the Yellowstone Caldera, which could be triggered by a major earthquake. Some fear that a large scale earthquake would surely cause the caldera to blow. For Cervelli, whose main focus is Yellowstone’s volcanic activity, the ballooning fears surrounding the Yellowstone Caldera are unwarranted.

“It’s not like there’s no risk, but hopefully we would have a considerable amount of warning,” he said. Cervelli also dismisses the concept of a world-ending explosion. “It’s not like these are volcanic eruptions with lava and volcanic rock. Rather, they are steam explosions that throw around the material that is already there, and they happen on a small scale pretty frequently.” These explosions, Cervelli explained, have changed the topography of the park even within his lifetime. Biscuit Basin and Porkchop Geyser both had small explosions that altered the way the feature looked. No damage was done, though, except for spewed gravel ending up on the boardwalk.

Overall Cervelli concludes that the “end of the world” scenario is totally implausible. “There’s no guarantee we’ll ever get a supereruption again,” said Cervelli, who was dismissive of language deeming that Yellowstone’s big one is “overdue to erupt.” Even though Yellowstone is often described as a ticking time bomb, the Yellowstone Caldera is not on a timer.

According to USGS’s surveys, there is no abnormal activity whatsoever that would indicate it is overdue to erupt. And even if it did erupt, Cervelli does not believe there would be the cataclysmic ramifications that are often cited.

“Like the one that occurred 640,000 years ago—it was a very serious natural disaster with global ramifications. Should something similar occur it wouldn’t destroy the East or West Coast,” he said. Instead, Cervelli noted the biggest problem would be volcanic ash (really pulverized rock) that would accumulate to significant depths in places like Colorado, Nebraska and the Dakotas, which would be a serious hazard and a long-term inconvenience. “But the concept that it is overdue to erupt is just wrong. There’s no sign of any abnormal activity as long as we’ve been measuring.”

The water causeway at Idaho National Laboratory where tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, is stored. (Photo: idaho national laboratory)

The water causeway at Idaho National Laboratory where tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen, is stored. (Photo: idaho national laboratory)

Volcanic activity exists in Yellowstone, of course, but in this area of the world, Cervelli sees no competition between volcanism and seismicity. “We know that earthquakes occur fairly frequently. People have died from earthquakes in the area, but not one person has died from volcanic activity in Yellowstone.” This doesn’t include semantic exceptions, he pointed out, like injuries and deaths associated with geysers.

Petrologist Christy Till, a professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, believes with the advancements in geological forecasting technology, predicting an eruption well ahead of the actual event is quite possible.

“We find that the last time Yellowstone erupted after sitting dormant for a long time, the eruption was triggered within 10 months of new magma moving into the base of the volcano, while other times it erupted closer to the 10-year mark,” she stated in a press release for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Till’s estimates “[Do] not mean that Yellowstone will erupt in 10 months, or even 10 years. The countdown clock starts ticking when there is evidence of magma moving into the crust.” Currently, according to Till, there is no such movement. PJH

While we’re talking nuclear…

Nuclear watchdog organization Snake River Alliance has been opposed to Idaho National Laboratory since the alliance’s inception in 1979. SRA nuclear program director Beatrice Brailsford says she is less concerned about a major natural disaster like an earthquake and more concerned about the materials INL handles, such as its more than 900,000 gallons of nuclear waste water buried under its facility.

“That’s the real problem as I see it: what are we going to do with all of this? We’ve got all sorts of nuclear material that can escape into the environment,” she said. “It has been released into the soil, the groundwater, and the air, and that happens almost routinely. We don’t need a dramatic event for nuclear material to be dangerous.”

INL spans 290 square miles over the Snake River Aquifer that supplies water to nearly 300,000 Idahoans and waters crops that feed people across the country. Until the late ‘80s, INL could legally pump highly diluted radioactive wastewater into this central aquifer, Brailsford said.

INL’s Miley, however, claims this water was safe. By the time the wastewater reached a consumer, he said the radioactive water was so diluted it was in a concentration less than what is found in nature.

Dr. Kemal Pasamehmetoglu is the associate lab director of nuclear science and technology at INL. Pasamehmetoglu insists that the current barons of the energy industry pose just as serious a threat to the environment and to human life. Oil spills, noxious chemicals, groundwater contamination, and pollution are all par for the course when it comes to oil, natural gas, and coal. However, as the world reconciles itself to the fact that these energy sources are exacerbating climate change and polluting the globe, the demand for energy continues to spike. Pasamehmetoglu asserts that if the aim is to produce clean energy, nuclear energy is a strong contender for the way of the future.



About Natosha Hoduski

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