Jan 19, 2019 | Updated: 08:24 AM EST

Japan's Volcanos Threaten Nuclear Reactors, Expert Warns

Oct 17, 2014 06:47 PM EDT


One volcano expert is warning that Japan's massive 2011 earthquake--which damaged the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and caused a nuclear crisis--could cause large volcanic eruptions in the coming years, yet he could not say when people could expect the eruptions to happen. Mount Ontake, Japan's second tallest active volcano, erupted last month without warning and sent ash and smoke into the atmosphere and over the surrounding area.

The Ontake eruption was responsible for the deaths of 56 people, which is more than the 1980 Mount St. Helens death toll in the U.S. Several persons remain missing, and Japanese officials will not resume their search and recovery until next spring. 

Toshitsugu Fujii, vulcanologist and University of Tokyo professor, has proposed the idea that 2011's devastating 9.0 earthquake has ushered Japan into a new highly volatile seismic era, and one in which the nation can expect increased volcanic activity in the coming years and decades. 

According to Fujii, "The 2011 quake convulsed all of underground Japan quite sharply, and due to that influence Japan's volcanoes may also become much more active. It has been much too quiet here over the last century, so we can reasonably expect that there will be a number of large eruptions in the near future."

That's bad news for Japan, which is essentially an island chain that was formed by volcanic activity. According to Fujii, earthquakes of magnitude 9.0 or greater have typically led to subsequent volcanic eruptions, based off of observations of world seismic and volcanic activity over the past 50 years. 

Mt. Fuji, one of Japan's iconic landmarks, is one volcano that is apparently due for an eruption. The volcano is reported to have at one time erupted once every 30 years, though it hasn't happened since 1707. If Mt. Fuji were to erupt, it could mean disaster for nearby Tokyo which sits some 60 miles away. Fujii stated that Mt. Fuji could erupt "at any time."

Japan does not have the budget to monitor all of its 110 active volcanos. The current budget permits them to only keep tabs on 47 of them, which many worry is woefully inadequate. Another part of the problem, according to Fujii, is that Japan has a shortage of volcano experts, who would normally be assigned to active peaks to watch for any significant changes in activity. 

And even with the best measuring equipment available, predicting an eruption is no guarantee. Japan has seen nine major eruptions since 1977, and of those nine, the biggest advanced warning science was able to provide was one week, with the average warning period being closer to a matter of hours. 

Fujii also has disagreed with Japanese nuclear regulators who have stated that two nuclear reactors at the Sendai plant are safe to operate over the next three decades without fear of an eruption or earthquakes disrupting their processes. 

Fujii commented that restarting the reactors now is a bad idea due to the instability in the region: "Scientifically, they're not safe. If they still need to be restarted despite uncertainties and risks that remain, it's for political reasons, not because they're safe, and you should be honest about that;" he said this in reference to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is in favor of restarting the reactors at the Sendai plant to aid the country's economy. 

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