Fukushima: Earthquake Prediction in the Shadow of Consensus Science

Fukushima: Earthquake Prediction in the Shadow of Consensus Science

 By Julian Gresser, John Casey, and Dong R. Choi

When will the next M7.9 + * earthquake-tsunami strike Fukushima? This could be a transformational question for the world. By good opinion the boiling spent fuel pools of Reactors 1-4 are secure up to this limit. But if the threshold is exceeded, a “criticality” is likely. According to those with knowledge of the nuclear industry a criticality can mean the following events occurring singly, in phase, or together: the collapse of the spent fuel pools, the release into the atmosphere of Strontium 90, Cesium 134/137, nano “hot” plutonium, and other lethal radioactive isotopes; a “deflagration” – or most ominously, an explosion/detonation, or a chain reaction of detonations, engulfing all four reactors. If you look at a 3-dimensional topographical map, you will see how proximate Fukushima is to greater Tokyo. The next mega earthquake holds a sword of tragedy over millions of lives.

The dominant paradigm followed by the responsible U.S. federal agency, the United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the majority of seismologists around the world is based on the science of plate tectonics which dates from the early 20th century. Plate tectonics is a scientific theory that describes large-scale motions of the Earth’s lithosphere. The lithosphere is the rigid outermost shell or crust of our planet and is defined on the basis of its mechanical properties. On Earth it comprises the crust and the portion of the upper mantle that behaves elastically on time scales of thousands of years or greater. According to followers of the plate tectonic theory, the world’s earthquakes are not randomly distributed over the Earth’s surface, but rather tend to be concentrated in narrow zones. The theory of plate tectonics combines many of the ideas about continental drift (originally proposed in 1912 by Alfred Wegener in Germany) and sea-floor spreading (originally proposed by Harry Hess of Princeton University). 

Plate tectonics suggests that the Earth’s lithosphere is broken into a mosaic of oceanic and continental plates which can slide over the plastic asthenosphere, the uppermost layer of the mantle. The plates are in constant motion. Where they interact, along their margins, important geological processes take place, such as the formation of mountain ranges, earthquakes, and volcanoes. 

The current tectonic plate model, as it pertains to the prediction of earthquakes, embeds several core assumptions, the most important of which are:

  • Few precursors are sufficient—The current tectonic plate model is limited to an analysis of only a few precursors.
  • Earthquake generation by plate tectonics is based on mechanical force—plate subduction/collisions, push and resultant friction and heat, stress accumulation, and slippage along fault lines.
  • Timing and intensity—Although the location of earthquakes along major plate boundaries is routinely observed, the timing and intensity of seismic events are not. By inference the tectonic model appears to assume that these factors are irrelevant or unworthy of serious consideration.
  • Other influences—The tectonic model is narrowly focused on seismic events, and therefore appears to assume that other factors—for example, volcanic activity or solar events– are unrelated or uncorrelated with earthquakes.

The current tectonic plate model has not been successful as a tool for predicting earthquakes. The most notable failure involved the USGS attempt in the late 1980s to forecast a large earthquake in Parkfield, California. Predicted by USGS to occur by 1994, the model missed its mark by ten years. Following the same approach and using two precursors, Chinese seismologists were unable to repeat their success after correctly predicting the 1975 Haicheng earthquake.  Numerous individuals for decades have advanced theories and techniques, but not one has been able to withstand objective scrutiny. From these past failures the USGS and many leading seismologists have concluded that earthquakes are inherently unpredictable, elevating what is essentially a belief to a scientific axiom. In fact, some leading seismologists caution that earthquake prediction is a last sanctuary for “fools and charlatans.” In other words, if present and past leaders in the field of seismology cannot predict earthquakes, no one else ever can!

But isn’t the situation at Fukushima too precarious, the stakes too high, not to keep an open mind, or to leave any plausible path unexplored? Is not the bedrock of good science, as it is in a wide swath of other professions, to explore and to challenge core assumptions? When we drop these assumptions, we see the world as Marcel Proust remarked “with fresh eyes”, and then we discover. This axiom is as true in the realms of negotiation and innovation, which is the expertise of one of the co-authors (JG), as it is in science and technology, the domain of the others (JC, DC).

The International Earthquake and Volcano Prediction Center (IEVPC ) in Orlando, Florida, has assembled a panel of distinguished experts from Russia, Japan, India, Italy, Australia, and the U.S. (mostly outside the U.S.!),  who have developed an alternative model called, “Catastrophic Geophysical Event (CGE) Monitoring and Warning System (CMWS)”. It provides a different perspective and a potentially powerful tool in the arsenal of mainstream seismologists. IEVPC approaches the present tectonic model not antagonistically but rather in the spirit of an open “explorer’s mind.” The essential idea:

(1) The precipitating cause of earthquakes and volcanoes derives from the build up of thermal- electromagnetic energy emanating from the Earth’s core and rising to the surface; 2) The thermal-electromagnetic energy travels along deep fracture zones at a regular speed in the mantle but then accumulates in structural heights, much like the behavior of oil and gas; and 3) The heated and bulged crust and mantle crack and release energy through major fracture zones in the form of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. This pattern is particularly evident in the M9.0 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami which struck Fukushima on March 11, 2011.

(2) IEVPC’s CMWS expands and refines the existing tectonic model as follows:

  • Multiple precursors phased over time— The IEVPC CMWS monitors earthquake precursor signals, beginning with those that are of the longest time frame from the tentatively predicted date, and then marches through what amounts to an earthquake prediction countdown from two to three years out and ending with precursor signals that can predict a major quake (M6.5 +) within one hour or less from a predicted time to a main shock. As the time-phased process proceeds each successive precursor typically becomes more accurate. The longest term precursors have the lowest probability for predictive accuracy, and the shortest time frame precursors have the highest accuracy. However, it is the integration of all these signals within a coherent framework that yields the most effective results.
  • Data Enhancement–The CMWS is self-reflective and continuously updating, collating, and integrating new precursors and refining its measurement technology. It is not dependent on a single all-or-nothing set of precursors, a mindset that we believe is the root cause of so many past predictive failures. 
  • Enriched Analysis—Because the IEVPC strategy approaches the challenges of earthquake analysis from a perspective of “innovation integration,” it is interested in the “intertidal” connections of other fields with conventional seismological analysis. The intertidal zone between the sea and land—where the tides flow in and out—is biologically among the most fertile. Our (JG) research suggests by analogy the same is true for the processes of exploration, invention, and innovation, where some of the most promising lines of inquiry lie at the intersection of conventional disciplines or silos of professional thought and practice. For example, IEVPC scientists have detected a recurrent eleven year solar cycle that appears to be inversely correlated with the occurrence of earthquakes. In other words, the model detects a high degree of correlation between solar hibernation with enhanced seismic activity. Along with solar cycles, increased volcanic activity has also been observed to be highly correlated with large earthquakes, especially based on monitoring data gathered in Japan and within the Pacific Ring of Fire. The data assembled by IEVPC suggests that similar thermodynamic processes and patterns in the Earth are closely associated with both earthquakes and volcanoes. 
  • The CMWS is designed to monitor and integrate relevant seismic activity occurring in remote locations such as the Cascadia Subduction Zone (CSZ), a massive fault off the coast of the state of Washington. Example # 1: The CSZ may already be more vulnerable to earthquakes as a result of solar hibernation which is already happening. There is historical evidence of the prodigious power that is unleashed when the CSZ comes alive. On January 6, 1700 at about 9:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time, a gigantic earthquake occurred in the CSZ sixty to seventy miles off the Pacific Northwest coast.  The quake violently shook the ground for three to five minutes and was felt along the coastal interior of the Pacific Northwest.  A tsunami formed, reaching about 33 feet high along the coast, and then traveled for some 10 hours across the Pacific Ocean, hitting the east coast of Japan where it is recorded to have caused considerable damage. 
  • Example # 2: The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center and the International Tsunami Information Center located in Hawaii have compiled extensive data bases which are currently being used in post hoc emergency response initiatives throughout the Pacific. However, the potential applications of these data sets– indeed data currently being gathered by earthquake research centers such as at the University of Alaska and other institutions around the world–are not currently being tapped for purposes of earthquake prediction, because of the controlling assumption that earthquakes inherently are unpredictable. There is an urgent need and opportunity to integrate the CMWS and other best available methodologies within a comprehensive global earthquake, volcano, and tsunami prediction and early warning system.

(3) Although the track record of IEVPC is preliminary and its progress has been limited by inadequate funding, the CMWS model has been successfully demonstrated under diverse conditions involving large M6.5+ earthquakes. For example, during the last six months of 2012, the IEVPC correctly identified the time frame, magnitude, and epicenter of earthquakes: (i.) off the Kamchatka Peninsula that resulted in a swarm of M4.6 to M5.8 quakes within an eight day period, (ii.). a M6.0 deep sea quake in the Celebes Sea, (iii.) and a highly accurate prediction M6.8 quake in Myanmar. 

The Kamchatka event took place in a traditional off-shore subduction zone. The Celebes Sea event erupted in the middle of the deep ocean. The Myanmar quake occurred well inland. It is of particular importance that these three predictions involved diverse geologies in distant locations, which suggests that the multi-precursor CMWS model has broad applications to earthquake-prone areas around the globe.

Corps of Discovery

When setting out to explore the new Louisiana territory and farther west President Thomas Jefferson commissioned a “Corps of Discovery” and charged it with bringing the best  scientific inquiry to this dangerous but exciting new frontier. What are the risks of approaching the field of earthquake prediction with a similar bold and intrepid spirit? In ancient times the scientific consensus maintained that the earth was flat and very few dared to question this belief. During the 18th century more British sailors died of scurvy than in battle. As is now known scurvy is caused by a deficiency of Vitamin C. The body loses its ability to produce collagen, and gums and other tissues bleed and disintegrate. Scurvy was a preventable tragedy. Many sea captains and some doctors understood from their observations that fresh vegetables and citrus fruits cured scurvy. Notwithstanding, the British Admiralty’s Sick and Health Board of scientists and physicians dismissed the evidence for more than fifty years because it did not fit its consensus theory that putrefaction resulting from internal decay was the cause, and scurvy could be effectively cured by fresh air, exercise, and laxatives. ***

A more contemporary example of the costs of failing to pay attention is the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. In a televised hearing before the Roger’s Commission, Nobel Laureate Richard P. Feynman demonstrated that the material used in the Shuttle’s O-rings became less resilient in cold weather by compressing a sample of the material in a clamp and immersing it in ice-cold water. The Commission ultimately determined that the accident was caused by the primary O-ring not having been properly prepared and sealed to withstand the unusually cold weather at Cape Canaveral.

The Challenger disaster was foreseeable and preventable. The consequences of the government’s failure to pay attention fell principally upon the courageous team of astronauts and their families, although it represented a major setback for the national space program. Fukushima is very different. The insistence by the present government-scientific establishment that earthquakes are inherently unpredictable– no longer a scientific premise but rather an ideological stance—underlies its stubborn unwillingness even to inform itself and the public by compiling and examining a broader ambit of data. Such passivity and inaction raises grave legal and ethical questions of gross negligence and governmental misfeasance. These questions have been addressed by at least one court in L’Aquila, Italy in 2009, in connection with L’Aquila’s M 6.3 earthquake. In that case the prosecution indicted the seismologists and administrators to L’Aquila City on the grounds that they were criminally negligent in failing to provide L Aquila’s citizens with sufficient warning to protect themselves. ***** The L’Aquila case occurred under far less compelling and urgent conditions than currently obtain at Fukushima.

Is it not now time for serious researchers in many camps, representing a wide array of disciplines, to join forces with professional seismologists and citizen scientists around the world in the same spirit of exploration and discovery, without recrimination, self-protectiveness, or bias? Does not Fukushima afford a unique chance to bring together the most imaginative thinking around the world—a modern Corps of Discovery– and focus it on the central question: not whether another mega-earthquake will come to Fukushima, but when and how, and if so, what can be done to prepare ourselves?

Coping with Uncertainty

One of the authors (JG) spoke recently with a close friend in Japan about how she continues to live, and cope, and protect her children under the shadow of Fukushima. “We go on each day as we always have,” she replies, “and we enjoy our lives as we can. I am sure the Japanese government is doing its very best and continues to assemble the top technical and scientific expertise and talent from around the world. After all, senior Japanese officials understand the risks, and they do not want to commit collective suicide. Our world may have irrevocably changed with Fukushima, but we must live with it and adapt. What else can we do?” 

By this version of reality the situation at Fukushima has stabilized after the 2011 convulsion and is no longer prone to flux. But isn’t this assumption also an opiate? Considering the enormous risks and tragic scenarios that will follow the next M7.9+ earthquake, isn’t it worth giving an alternative and fresh perspective a chance? What might we wisely do today, which we are not doing now, if we are forewarned?

*M7.9 is the number that the Tokyo Power Electric Company (TEPCO) itself cites in its own “Overview of Safety at the Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. (TEPCO took the link down). Its “Summary of Seismic Performance Assessment” states: “When developing the basic design ground motion Ss for the Fukushima Dai-ichi NPP, we assumed the scale of an interplate earthquake as M7.9, which was a scale exceeding the estimate regarding off the coast of Fukushima (M7.4) provided by the government’s Earthquake Research Promotion Headquarters. However, the scale of the 3.11 earthquake was M9.0, which was caused by co-movements of multiple areas, and therefore our seismic hazard assumption proved to be inadequate.”

Because the nuclear power facility at Fukushima, in particular Reactors 1-4, is a dynamically degrading situation, assessing the degree of safety and preparedness of the Fukushima facilities presents not only a difficult technical engineering and systems analytic challenges but also complex issues of Japanese and international law and public policy. From a systems perspective the safety standard of M7.9 raises several levels of concern: 1. What if an earthquake exceeding M7.9 strikes the facility? (The March 2011 earthquake was reported by USGS as M9.0.) 2. What if a series of lesser magnitude earthquakes occur whose cumulative impact exceeds M7.9? 3. How vulnerable is the weakest link? Reactor 3 appears so downgraded it may be that even TEPCO’s engineers do not fully comprehend its extent of vulnerability. It is possible that a < M 7.9 earthquake will be sufficient to topple the spent fuel pool in Reactor 3. 4. What about cascading effects? In other words, if one of the reactors (Reactors 3 or 4) becomes further compromised—for example, a collapse or a pyrophoric (spontaneously catching fire when exposed to oxygen) fire—what might this trigger in the others? Putting the number M7.9 aside, given the precarious conditions of the spent fuel pools in Reactors 1-4 the essential question may be: What level of single, synergistic, or cumulative seismic and related event(s) will be sufficient to cause a criticality at any of the reactors? 5. What is the relevant time horizon or window of safety? The Japanese government has announced that it will take as much as forty (40) years to decommission Fukushima Daiichi. How confident can the Japanese government be that the real window is safety is not less than one year, or perhaps even shorter? (See the Guardian article and the Bloomberg article.

From a legal perspective given the clear foreseeability of earthquakes in and around Japan and the vulnerability of the Fukushima complex, in particular spent fuel pools in Reactors 1-4, a reasonable standard of care would demand that the Tokyo Electric Power Corporation and other agencies of the Japanese government conduct an earthquake tolerance assessment based on the following factors at the very least: (i) a careful analysis of the original General Electric Corporation design prior to the March 2011 M9.0 earthquake (ii) the conditions at the plant following the mega-earthquake and (iii) the tolerance of each reactor, and in particular Reactors 1-4, considered as a tightly coupled system to a criticality involving either a deflagration or detonation as defined below.(See Charles Perrow, Normal Accidents, 1999) Given the present veil of secrecy imposed on Japan’s citizenry and the public media by the State Secrets Law, passed by the Japanese Diet on December 7, 2013, it is extremely difficult to confirm precisely the degree of security at the entire Fukushima complex. See generally (Youtube) also on the question of whether earthquakes need to be included in the emergency response plan in a similar situation at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Given the high vulnerability of Reactors 1-4 at Fukushima one might expect a Japanese or international tribunal to hold the Japanese government to a highest affirmative duty of care to implement “best available capabilities” which would include protocols, methodologies, data sets, and technologies. The historical parallel of earthquakes and militarism in Japan is intriguingly discussed in Joshua Hammer, Yokohama Burning –The Deadly 1923 Earthquake and the Fire that Helped Forge the Path to WWII (2006)

** A “deflagration” is a combustion event attended by a rapid high energy release that propagates through gas or an explosive material at subsonic speeds, driven by the transfer of heat. A “detonation” is an explosion which is supersonic and propagates through shock waves. (See Arnie Gundersen) “Pyrophoric” fires which occurred in at least one of the facilities happen spontaneously in contact with air at or below 54.55 °C (130.19 °F)”. A detonation shock wave apparently took place in Reactor 3 (Gundersen video), and there were at least two other deflagrations involving Reactors 1 and 4. There has been substantial controversy around the precipitating cause of the original damage at Fukushima in March 2011. The official position has been that the tsunami was the primary cause. But science writers such as Mitsuhiko Tanaka, formerly with Babcock-Hitachi K.K., argue that the M9.0 earthquake was the primary cause. Tanaka was one of the engineers responsible designing the pressure vessel for No. 4 Reactor (Japan Times).

See Richard McNider and John Christy “Why Kerry is Flat Wrong on Climate Change” WSJ, February 20, 2014, A 15.

One of the co-authors of this article (JC) was a member of NASA’s team that was commissioned to investigate the Space Shuttle accident.

***** David E. Alexander, “Communicating Earthquake Risk to the Public: the Trial of the L’Aquila Seven” in Nat. Hazards, Springer Science and Business Media Dordrecht, January 2014.
Julian Gresser is Chairman of Alliances for Discovery, and the author of Piloting Through Chaos—The Explorer’s Mind (www.explorerswheel.com), and Environmental Law in Japan (MIT Press 1981, with co-authors Koichiro Fujikura and Akio Morishima). He was twice Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Law at the Harvard Law School and an advisor to the U.S. State Department, and the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan among many other professional engagements.

John Casey is a co-founder of the International Earthquake and Volcano Prediction Center (IEVPC) in Orlando, Florida. He is a former White House and NASA Headquarters advisor, space shuttle engineer, and veteran climate researcher.

Dong R. Choi is a veteran geologist and co-founder of IEVPC. An earlier, more technical article by Dong R. Choi on the Tohoku earthquake is: Dong R. Choi, “Geological Analysis of the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011” in New Concepts in Global Tectonics Newsletter, no. 59, June, 2011.

The authors express their appreciation to their colleague Dick Wullaerd, Ph.D. for his comments and suggestions.

© Copyright March 1, 2014, Julian Gresser, John Casey, Dong R. Choi, February 2014. All rights reserved. This article may be freely cited, reproduced, and republished with proper attribution to the authors.

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