Bay Area quakes have California asking: How well prepared are we?

The recent earthquakes near San Francisco have raised serious questions about how well prepared state and local officials are for "the great quake" that many experts now say is likely.

Scientists and planners agree that the moderate jolts at Livermore, Calif., Jan. 24, 26, and 27 -- and the hundreds of smaller aftershocks that followed -- will provide fresh data about earthquake predictions as well as spur better earthquake preparedness. But the Livermore quakes and consequent damage -- which came without warning -- also demonstrate just how inexact and unrefined earthquake prediction is.

Of particular concern is the safety of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, where radioactive materials are stored and US nuclear weapons developed. Lab officials at first had reported that there was no radioactive leakage nor damage to any of the "critical buildings."

Within hours of the first earthquake, however, officials discovered a slow leak of water containing low-level radioactive tritium, a material used in fusion research. The quake (the epicenter of which was located about 10 miles north of Livermore) also was discovered to have sheared the bolts holding the metal frame of the $25 million "shiva" laser facility -- the largest of its kind in the world -- at Livermore.

The tritium leak was held to 50 gallons, and officials were quick to point out that the radioactivity level of the substance was no more than the dial of a luminous watch -- so low that the water could legally have been discharged into the local sewer system.

But the earthquake damage at the Livermore lab (which could well run into the millions of dollars) heightens the controversy over nuclear weapons development in "earthquake country."

A lab spokesman says, "It's built to withstand the greatest earthquake we can imagine." But others are not so sure. There are 13 known active earthquake faults near (and in some cases directly on) the lab site. New faults have been discovered as recently as last fall, and some scientists are warning that the potential horizontal acceleration ("G" force) in the Livermore area is higher than the lab facilities are built to withstand.

Meanwhile, some scientists are warning that there is an even chance that California will experience an earthquake of magnitude 7 on the Richter scale within the next decade. This would release hundreds of times more earth- shifting energy than the recent Livermore quakes, which measured 5.5 and 5.6.

The most recent quakes, University of California seismolosgist Bruce Bolt says, "fit into the pattern of historical seismicity on which the prediction is based . . . and don't change our prediction . . ." Dr. Bolt is director of the University of California's Seismographic station at Berkeley and a member of the California Seismic Safety Commission.

Earthquake experts say local officials are better prepared for such an eventuality than in the recent past, but have far to go -- particularly in such areas as older buildings designed before the earthquake codes that many communities have adopted.

"Certain local ordinances and inspectors have pushed matters along," Dr. Bolt told the Monitor. "But they tend to be the exception, I'm afraid."

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