Earthquake aftermath

Oklahoma Earthquake and Nuclear Disaster: Could it Happen HERE?

by Matt Collins

A major Oklahoma earthquake is the kind of disaster that seems unlikely—maybe even impossible.

After all, earthquakes are associated almost entirely with the United States west coast, with every major quake over the last thirty years happening in California.

But recently, there's been a sharp rise in Oklahoma earthquake activity.

Historically, the state has seen a few minor tremors occasionally. But in the last decade, low-level Oklahoma earthquakes have started happening at an alarming rate—sometimes hundreds of times yearly.

This has left the state almost entirely unprepared for a new natural disaster. And it's also raised concerns about how similar quakes might impact the rest of the United States.

So today, we’re drilling down into Oklahoma earthquake history, evaluating the real-world threats involved with these major disasters, and looking at what you can do to protect yourself and your family from a similar disaster.

Let's get started.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Oklahoma Earthquake Reality

  • 02

    The Next Oklahoma Disaster

  • 03

    Fukushima's Deadly Precedent

  • 04

    Diablo Canyon

  • 05

    Earthquake Gear Guide

  • 06

    Disaster in the Heartland

Oklahoma Earthquake Reality

Earthquake aftermath at night

(Image courtesy of ABC News)

Oklahoma has experienced a significant surge in earthquake activity in recent years.

Remarkably, these earthquakes are entirely unprecedented in frequency and intensity. And their suddenness raised concerns among residents, leading them to search for answers.

Scientists, for their part, believe that the Oklahoma earthquake phenomenon can be attributed to a phenomenon known as "induced seismicity." Historically, earthquakes have been the result of tectonic phenomena, wherein tectonic plates deep in the Earth's crust are constantly shifting, growing, sinking and grinding against each other. The borders of these plates are known as "fault lines." And when two plates shift rapidly along a fault line, the result is an earthquake.

But Oklahoma earthquakes have a different cause entirely. In Oklahoma, human activities, particularly oil and gas operations, have significantly triggered seismic events—particularly racking. 

No doubt you've heard the term "fracking" during intense political debates. But what exactly does it mean?

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," involves injecting high-pressure liquids (usually water) into subterranean rocks, clearing blockages and extracting hard-to-reach oil and gas reserves. Notably, the practice was relatively controversial when it started a little over a decade ago, but it's since become a core strategy for Oklahoma's oil and gas producers.

Unfortunately, the increase in hydraulic fracturing and conventional oil production in Oklahoma has generated massive volumes of wastewater. To dispose of this wastewater, energy companies inject it deep into the Earth's subsurface, often into porous rock formations, which were previously believed to be safe from causing earthquakes.

Significantly, the high-pressure injection of wastewater stresses pre-existing faults, ultimately leading to earthquake activity.

And the results are unmistakable.

For perspective, in the early 2000s, the state experienced only a handful of noticeable earthquakes per year.

But by 2015, the state was experiencing upwards of 900 quakes each year, exceeding 3.0 on the Richter scale. This drastic increase in seismic activity has raised concerns about the potential for more extensive and damaging future earthquakes.

With that said, even a tiny Oklahoma earthquake is cause for concern. Because of the state's infrastructure, buildings and bridges weren't designed for earthquake hazards. Additionally, state's codes don't account for repeated, jarring quakes, and most structures weren't built to handle severe shaking. That means that the cost of repairing and retrofitting infrastructure to earthquake-resistant standards has suddenly become a significant financial burden on communities.

Put simply, residents are unprepared for seismic hazards. It would've been silly, after all, to prepare for earthquakes in Oklahoma for decades—like preparing for floods in a landlocked state.

As a result, many residents were caught off guard when the first earthquakes struck, leading to concerns about public safety and the need for increased education and preparedness measures.

Thankfully, Oklahoma authorities have begun taking some regulatory actions to address the issue. The Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC), for example, has restricted disposal well operations and implemented well shut-ins in seismically active areas. These measures aimed to reduce wastewater injection rates and alleviate induced seismicity.

Scientists have also intensified their research efforts to better understand the causes of the earthquake surge in Oklahoma. Specifically, seismologists and geologists have begun monitoring seismic activity, mapping fault lines, and studying the relationship between injection wells and earthquake occurrence.

This knowledge will be crucial for developing effective mitigation strategies and predictive models to assess earthquake hazards in the future.

But Oklahoma's unanticipated surge in earthquake activity has been an eye-opening phenomenon, challenging traditional notions of seismic hazards in the region.

In this way, induced seismicity, resulting from wastewater injection from oil and gas operations, has put the state's infrastructure at risk and caused genuine public safety concerns.

The Next Oklahoma Disaster

Earthquake aftermath

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

In 2011, Oklahoma registered a 5.7 magnitude earthquake, the biggest in the state's history.

Because the epicenter was well-removed from Oklahoma City, only a few homes saw damage. And though local US Route 62 was said to have "buckled" in three places, the infrastructure held up otherwise.

With a more significant earthquake, that might not be the case, however. As you may already know, the Richter scale is logarithmic, meaning California's 7.0 earthquakes are thirty-one times more devastating than a 6.0, or 1,000 more than a 5.0.

As such, a major Oklahoma Earthquake could seriously disrupt the state's aging infrastructure, causing massive derailments, wrecking chemical facilities, and wreaking havoc on the state's power grid.

Just look at the Cushing Tank Farm, one of the state's most vulnerable facilities.

Cushing is a central oil trading hub and home to one of the world's most extensive oil storage facilities. Working storage is estimated at 76 million barrels—roughly 13% of America's total supply. Worryingly, a major regional earthquake could rupture oil storage tanks, releasing large quantities of oil and potential fires.

Though it's not an exact comparison, the Kuwaiti oil fires in 1991 would be a rough comparison of what could happen here.

For perspective, after their embarrassing defeat in Desert Storm, Iraq's military retreated from Kuwait—but not before lighting 605 of its 732 oil wells on fire. Remarkably, plumes of black smoke were visible from space, and the fires took massive amounts of time and resources to quench.

A major earthquake at the Cushing Tank Farm would be much the same: disaster on an ecological level.

Another potential disaster site could be the Phillips 66 refinery in Ponca City. As one of the oldest and largest refineries in the state, a significant earthquake could disrupt operations, releasing not just volatile oil, but dangerous gasses and waste chemicals into the environment.

Both cases, of course, would severely affect Oklahoma, the immediate area, and the country's oil industry. What’s more, a significant disruption in the oil supply chain could lead to skyrocketing prices at the gas pump and even prolonged shortages.

And because Oklahoma is home to some 4,700 dams, countless bridges, windmills and power transmission lines, all of this infrastructure would potentially be in danger if an earthquake were to strike nearby.

At the moment, Oklahoma isn't home to any nuclear power plants. But that may change soon. And the potential damage of an Oklahoma earthquake causing a nuclear meltdown would be catastrophic—as Japan learned roughly a decade ago, the same year that Oklahoma registered its most significant earthquake.

Fukushima's Deadly Precedent

Fukushima bird's eye view

(Image courtesy of BBC)

The Great Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011 resulted in a massive tsunami that smashed the Japanese coast and caused the catastrophic failure of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Not only did the disaster devastate the surrounding environment, but it also led to a mass evacuation of the area–sending shockwaves through the global nuclear industry. 

Registering at 9.0 on the Richter scale, the quake was a big one by any definition. It was so big, in fact, that the seismic force of the earthquake exceeded the design limits of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing severe damage to its reactors. 

And though the reactors automatically shut down in response to the earthquake, the residual heat generated by the ongoing nuclear decay required continued cooling to prevent overheating.

Things remained under control for a time–until the subsequent tsunami arrived, slamming the shore with a 50-foot wave that delivered the killing blow to the power plant. At that point, the waves smashed through the plant's seawalls, flooding critical systems such as the emergency diesel generators that provided the reactors the essential cooling water. As such, the plant lost its cooling capabilities, and three generators went into meltdown.

Meanwhile, multiple radioactive isotopes, including iodine-131, cesium-137, and strontium-90, were released into the atmosphere, raising concerns about radiation exposure and its potential long-term health effects. 

Fukushima relief efforts

(Image courtesy of Jennifer Straka)

On this basis, 150,000 people living near the Fukushima Daiichi plant were evacuated. 

How many of those exposed died as a result of radiation remains a subject of debate. What we can say for sure, however, is that the displacement of communities and the ensuing psychological distress have had lasting impacts on the affected population.

As in previous nuclear meltdowns, the fallout would spread far and wide. Accordingly, elevated levels of radioactivity have been detected in the region's air, water, and soil, rendering vast agricultural lands unsuitable for cultivation. The marine ecosystem has also seen significant contamination, leading to concerns about seafood safety and affecting fishing industries in the area.

Unsurprisingly, the cleanup and decommissioning of the damaged reactors became a massive endeavor. Much like Chernobyl, the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdown was characterized by the heroic efforts of local workers like the Fukushima fifty and numerous pensioners who volunteered to endure radioactive exposure to save the lives of others.

All of this, of course, incurred massive expenses, with compensation for affected individuals and businesses–as well as investments in alternative energy sources–putting an enormous financial burden on the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) power company. 

What’s more, the event did severe damage to the reputation of nuclear power worldwide.

And while it's been over a decade since Fukushima's meltdown, we should remember that it can happen again—much closer to home…

Diablo Canyon

Diablo Canyon

(Image courtesy of Hahn Lionel/ABACA via Reuters Co)

Located on California's scenic central coast, the Diablo Canyon power plant is just 300 meters (roughly three football fields) from the nearest fault line.

Consisting of just two nuclear reactors (compared to Fukushima's 6), Diablo Canyon has long been a source of controversy and contention in California.

Originally envisioned as an alternative source of low-carbon energy for California's growing economy, the construction and development of Diablo Canyon took decades. In fact, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) wouldn't bring the plant's reactors online until the mid-1980s. 

One of the primary reasons for the protests was the plant's proximity to several fault lines. Significantly, California experienced major earthquakes in the 1980s and 90s that topped a 7.0 on the Richter scale. The Hosgri Fault, for example–located just offshore–raised particular concerns due to its potential to generate large earthquakes. Accordingly, activists argued that the plant's original design did not adequately account for the seismic risks.

Note that the plant's location is relatively remote, with just over 26,000 people living within a ten-mile radius as of the 2010 census. But we've already seen how fallout can spread across massive distances and have potentially globe-spanning effects.

In the early 2000s, PG&E sought license renewals for the Diablo Canyon reactors to extend their operational life. However, environmental groups, led by the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, challenged these license renewals, citing outdated environmental impact reports and inadequate consideration of earthquake risks. These legal challenges ultimately compelled further seismic studies and safety assessments.

At this time, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, responsible for overseeing nuclear safety in the United States, conducted several reviews of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant's seismic safety. 

In the end, the NRC's evaluations validated the plant's ability to withstand earthquakes up to specific design parameters, but concerns lingered about the potential for stronger earthquakes exceeding the original design basis.

As such, in 2016, PG&E agreed with environmental and labor groups to retire Diablo Canyon's reactors. The plant's permanent shutdown was scheduled for 2024 for Reactor Unit 1 and 2025 for Reactor Unit 2. 

But due to the state's ravenous demand for power, PG&E is now seeking a twenty-year extension for Diablo Canyon. That could keep California's aging power plant in business through the mid-2040s.

But what would happen if the "Big One" struck California today? How would Diablo Canyon hold up?

And what does a "Big One" even look like? 

The "Big One"

Earthquake aftermath

(Image courtesy of NBC News)

It's been over sixty years since the last "Big One" struck Chile in 1960.

Notably, Chile is located along what’s called the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” where two tectonic plates are converging with relatively great force. As a result, Chile is one of the most seismically active regions in the world.

Prior to the massive quake, it was clear that pressure was building. Foreshocks and rumblings had locals on the lookout for a potential quake—but it was impossible to know where or when it might strike.

Then, on May 22, 1960, a colossal megathrust earthquake struck off the coast of Chile, approximately 100 miles northwest of the city of Valdivia.

Remarkably, the quake’s magnitude is estimated at somewhere between 9.4 and 9.6. That’s 500 times more powerful than the powerful 6.9 that shook California’s Central Coast in 1989. 

And even though the Chilean quake’s epicenter was located miles offshore, its tremendous size led to serious and far-reaching consequences.

It started with the displacement of massive amounts of water in the Pacific. Sending shockwaves around the world, earthquake-induced tsunamis reached distant shores, including Japan, the Philippines, Hawaii, and even the west coast of the United States, causing additional destruction and loss of life.

Earthquake aftermath

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Meanwhile, in Chile, whole communities were leveled. Indeed, buildings of all types were shaken to their foundation, left crumbled often with their residents still inside. Roads, too, were blocked; bridges were destroyed; and fires spread across the region.  

Consequently, local industry was left in ruins. Whole mills, after all, had been destroyed, and once-thriving businesses had been smashed to debris in a matter of minutes. 

The local fishing industry, which was instrumental not just for the economy but for feeding the local population, was likewise destroyed. Everything from fishing boats to seafood processing plants had been decimated.

This destruction of vital infrastructure, industries, and power facilities posed substantial obstacles to the country's recovery efforts. As such, rebuilding efforts required extensive financial resources and international aid.

This is to say nothing of the human cost, which was significant, although not clearly defined–with estimates of the death toll ranging between 1,000 and 6,000. And the devastation didn’t end there, as hundreds of thousands were displaced, and millions were impacted across the world.

All in all, the quake served as a wake-up call for the world's scientific community, leading experts to focus on early warning systems, earthquake prediction—and anything that might help save lives the next time a catastrophic earthquake strikes.

As a seismically active country, Chile's experiences continue to offer valuable lessons to the global community in earthquake risk management and the importance of investing in resilient infrastructure and disaster response strategies.

Earthquake Gear Guide

Even if it's not the next "Big One," an Oklahoma earthquake would be a complicated and grave threat.

While Oklahoma has begun adopting seismic codes for its new construction, a significant earthquake could still damage many existing structures. That means that homes, factories, schools and office buildings would all be at risk.

In the aftermath, residents would be dealing with everything from fire to unexpected pollution, failure of public services and more. As such, you'll want to be prepared for anything, ready to either bug out or shelter in place. Preparing extra supplies of food, water, and medicine are a great idea.

For more immediate threats, including everything from smoke to toxic industrial chemicals or even nuclear fallout, we strongly recommend a full-face respirator/gas mask. That way, even if worse comes to worst, you'll still be able to breathe, move around and seek shelter.

The CM-6M will always be a top choice for civilian gas masks, as it’s practical and durable, with a wide panoramic visor and rugged butyl rubber construction. That’s why top operators worldwide, from the US Department of Defense to the South African Ministry of Interior, trust the same mask.

MIRA Safety CM-6M

For gas mask filters, we recommend the NBC-77 SOF, since you'll want to be ready for almost anything. Certified to provide protection from all known CBRN threats, this filter has a twenty-year shelf life to boot—meaning it will last as long in storage as the gas mask you're planning to use it with. 

All in all, NBC-77 SOF is the perfect choice for tackling the unknown.

the NBC-77 SOF

Finally, we've got to recommend the CWD-3 Detehit Detection strips. These strips can be used to test air, food or water for the presence of chemical warfare agents. While it's doubtful you'll be exposed to these kinds of concentrated threats, taking precautions is essential. And you might consider adding a Geiger-2 to monitor radiation and potential exposure.

the CWD-3 Detehit Detection strips

Disaster in the Heartland

The classic 1974 blockbuster Earthquake features Charlton Heston and George Kennedy dealing with an unprecedented 9.9 magnitude earthquake striking Los Angeles. For reference, that would be nearly 16,000 times worse than Oklahoma's 2011 quake.

The film depicts the devastation of the initial earthquake and the subsequent damage—including downed power lines to ruptured dams, structural collapse, widespread fires, and the failure of public services.

San Andreas, meanwhile, featured similar post-earthquake damage but did not feature that amazing K5 Blazer with the Targa top.

San Andreas movie

Custom K5 Blazer = Essential Earthquake survival gear (Image courtesy of Drive)

All kidding aside, the danger of an Oklahoma earthquake—or a significant earthquake anywhere—is real. After all, it could disrupt oil markets worldwide and plunge millions of Americans into darkness. Or worse, it could result in a catastrophic reactor meltdown.

In the end, earthquakes are categorically unpredictable, massively devastating, and equipped to accelerate infrastructure failures like nothing else.

That’s why it's crucial to be prepared for this kind of catastrophe, even if you're miles from the closest fault line.