Rare Powerful Earthquake Strikes South Korea in Region Home to Nuclear Power Plants

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A damaged vehicle and debris caused by a recent earthquake are seen in Pohang, South Korea, on November 15. Yonhap/via REUTERS

South Korea experienced the second most powerful earthquake in its history on Wednesday afternoon.

The Korea Meteorological Administration initially recorded a 5.5 magnitude earthquake occurring at 14:29 p.m. local time (12:29 a.m. Eastern time) on the southeastern coast of the country, near Pohang, a city 230 miles away from Seoul.

The earthquake's magnitude was later revised to 5.4 but was felt across the country, including in the capital, as South Korean news agency Yonhap reported. The weather agency said aftershocks are to be expected in the next few months, but it excluded the possibility of a tsunami.

No fatalities have been reported yet. Seven people sustained minor injuries and 42 calls were made to the fire departments, according to The Korea Times, while the emergency hotline received more than 7,000 calls nationwide as people reported their homes were shaking and wondered if it was indeed an earthquake. The quake caused visible damaged to buildings, roads and cars parked in the streets.

The region is home to nuclear power plants, but the plant operator Korea Hydro & Nuclear Power said in statements posted on its Facebook page that no damage or disruption to the operations at the reactors was recorded.

South Korea is relatively less seismic, but earthquake frequency has increased in the past two decades. The country's most powerful quake occurred last year near the city of Gyeongju, just 20 miles south of Pohang, recording a 5.8 magnitude. By comparison, North Korea's most recent and powerful nuclear test to date caused a 6.3 magnitude earthquake.

Last year's earthquake alerted seismologists to the possibility that the increased frequency may be related to the seismic activity in Japan, following the massive 9 magnitude earthquake that struck the country in 2011.

"The latest earthquake seems to be linked to the massive quake that struck Japan in March 2011," Chi Heon-cheol, a researcher at the Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources (KIGAM) said in 2016, quoted in The Korea Herald, explaining that the South Korean earthquake was caused by a strike-slip fault.

Chi has since been arrested in the U.S. and sentenced to 14 months in prison for laundering more than $1 million in bribes from two seismological companies, the Los Angeles Times reported in October.

The disgraced seismologist, however, correctly predicted last year that more earthquakes would follow. "Although there can be earthquakes under 5.5 magnitude down the road, the overall geological structure in and around South Korea is not conducive to a major earthquake," he said.

Another seismologist said the Pohang area may be subject to even more powerful earthquakes in the future.

"We need to prepare for the possibility of a quake of 7 magnitude or higher, and bolster efforts to have more quake-resistant buildings and facilities around us," Hong Tae-kyung, earth science professor at Yonsei University, told Yonhap, calling more for more research into unknown active fault lines in the region.