Will there be a nuclear meltdown in your backyard?

Libya has replaced Japan in mainstream media reports. But while the new crusaders from Europe and America bomb and strafe Libyans who they think deserve to die, we should remember that other tragedy in Japan. Why? Because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) says the GE-designed reactors in Fukushima have 23 sisters in the United States. What happened in Japan could happen here.

The NRC database of nuclear power plants shows that 23 of the 104 nuclear power plants operating in the United States are very similar to those involved in the Japanese crisis. And many of those boiling-water reactors have GE’s early Mark I system for containing radioactivity, the same containment system that was used in Japan’s Fukushima plant.

The older Mark I reactors are in Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Vermont. Twelve newer reactors have the Mark II or Mark III containment systems. Those 12 plants are in Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Washington State.

Before you start packing your bags, remember that besides a few small leaks and a few corroded pipes, the safety and performance of all these old plants is excellent. So what could go wrong? How about a major earthquake? And how about a tsunami?

Obviously, living near the Comanche Peak reactor in Central Texas is a far cry from being one of the 7.5 million Americans living within 50 miles of Southern California’s San Onofre reactor (pictured below).

San Onofre is located on a Pacific Ocean beach that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says is in “a high seismic hazard area.” That means it is in one of the most seismically active parts of the country. Also, some 200 miles up the coast from San Onofre is the aptly named Diablo Canyon reactor, which sits atop four major seismic fault lines, including the huge San Andreas Fault.

In 1927, a 7.1 magnitude quake occurred a few miles from Diablo Canyon, so the reactor was designed to withstand a 7.5 magnitude quake. The San Onofre plant, right on the beach, was built to take a 7.0 magnitude quake. Neither reactor would be safe in a quake as big as the 7.8 magnitude one that leveled San Francisco in 1906.

Below is an earthquake hazard map of the lower 48 states produced by the U.S. Geological Survey. On the map you can see the historic data the USGS assembled to show the areas with the greatest earthquake risks.

Of course, the map does not tell us when a quake will happen, so scientists look at the records for clues about when the next big one will strike. The director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, Thomas Jordan, says that the San Andreas Fault is “locked and loaded. It’s been a long time since an earthquake has occurred on that fault — over 150 years.” In 1857, the San Andreas Fault produced a 7.9 magnitude quake.

So before you buy that dream house on the Southern California coast, think about what is happening at Japan’s Fukushima power plant. Then call your congressman and ask him about the reactor in your backyard.

Chet Nagle is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of Iran Covenant.