Miss. shows Japan ties in business, energy, prayer

By Molly Davis/The Associated Press

JACKSON — Mississippians are offering prayers and aid to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeast Japan on March 11.

Lawmakers and energy officials, meanwhile, are watching the Japanese nuclear crisis for lessons about risk faced by Mississippi, which sits on the New Madrid fault line and garners roughly one-fifth of its energy from nuclear power.

As the crisis unfolds in Japan, economic ripples are being felt around the world.

But, at least so far, Japanese auto plants in Mississippi aren’t expecting major impact from the tragedy. Toyota plans to continue on schedule toward the projected fall opening of its plant in Blue Springs.

Japan is one of the primary sources of foreign investment in Mississippi. Nissan has operated a plant in Canton, Miss., for several years.

In neighboring Louisiana, GM has announced its plant in Shreveport will go on furlough next week because of a shortage of parts from Japan.

Rev. Jud Meaders at Grace Episcopal Church in the town says the business relationship has created a special bond between Canton and Japan.

“We have them on our intercessory prayer list for all our services,” Meaders said. At least two churches in the town are developing a plan to collect donations for victims of the earthquake and tsunami.

Long-term economic impact is uncertain as the crisis continues on the far side of the world.

“A key activity for us right now is to assess the situation of Toyota plants and suppliers in Japan,” Toyota spokesman Mike Goss wrote in an email. “It’s a huge undertaking, given the infrastructure issues there.”

Nissan says that all of its manufacturing facilities in the Americas will maintain the usual production schedules for the time being.

Prayers and cars aren’t the only things linking Mississippi and Japan. .

The New Madrid fault, which runs north from northwest Mississippi, erupted through the Mississippi Valley in the early 1800s, generating three earthquakes so strong that the course of the Mississippi River was changed.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Authority encourages residents to mark the bicentennial anniversary of the earthquakes with a series of exercises this spring. The largest will be the Great Central U.S. Shake Out on April 28.

“All of the states along the New Madrid fault are participating, and we’re trying to get a million citizens to sign up for this,” said Mike Womack, MSEMA’s executive director. “They do this in California annually, and they have great participation out there, and we’re trying to build the participation here in Mississippi.”

The drills come at a key time as the Japanese disaster heightens concerns about risks posed to by the fault.

Womack said Mississippians shouldn’t panic, but prepare themselves just in case, since the risk is uncertain.

“We do not have agreement among all scientists about what is the exact likelihood, on an annual basis, of us having a major earthquake,” Womack said. He added, however, that a big earthquake would probably inflict the most damage on housing and infrastructure __ such as levees and bridges __ in the Delta, sparing the nuclear complex.

Two nuclear plants could impact Mississippi in the event of a radioactive release: the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station in Port Gibson, Miss., and the River Bend Station in St. Francisville, La. The southern tip of the New Madrid lies in northwest Mississippi. Womack said the nuclear plants are simply too far south to be impacted by a major quake and too far north to be impacted by a tsunami.

“I think it’s extremely unlikely that you would have anything at all like what you see in Japan,” he said.

New Orleans-based Entergy Corp. operates both of the plants at issue. John Herron, the company’s chief nuclear officer, said the plants go through a robust design process tailored to address risks in each region.

He pointed to Entergy’s Waterford 3 nuclear plant near Taft, La., which shut down ahead of Hurricane Katrina and has since continued normal operation.

“The plant did excellently because in its design we anticipate those types of scenarios,” said Herron. He added that Entergy will likely go forward with a planned power upgrade, despite the unfolding crisis in Japan’s nuclear power system.

He added, “That doesn’t mean that we would not be incorporating lessons learned as a result of the overall investigation that will go into what happened in Japan.”

State lawmakers may hold a hearing anyway. Rep. Dirk Dedeaux, a Democrat from Perkinston, said it could help assure the public about the risk.

“It would be a good idea if we had a hearing to determine whether we have sufficient safety measures in place in the event of a similar event in Mississippi,” he said.