Earthquake reignites debate over safety of nuclear power

Virginias largest earthquake in more than a century shook the East Coast on Tuesday, and is likely to revive a long-standing debate about the safety of the countrys nuclear power plants.

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake caused the shutdown of two nuclear reactors at the North Anna Power Station in Louisa County, Va. The plant, which is located less than 20 miles from the epicenter of the quake, lost offsite power and was running its cooling systems on diesel generators Tuesday.

Plant operator Dominion Virginia Power said it was able to restore offsite power to the reactors late Tuesday night.

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While there were no reports of damage at the North Anna reactors and Dominion said the cooling systems were working properly, nuclear opponents quickly pounced on the incident Tuesday.

They said it shows that U.S. nuclear reactors are vulnerable to major natural disasters and that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should move quickly to implement a series of sweeping regulatory changes recommended last month by a federal task force.

“The earthquake near the North Anna reactors clearly underscores the need for the rapid implementation of the recommendations of the NRCs Fukushima task force,” said Tom Clements, southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator at Friends of the Earth, a group that has long been critical of nuclear power.

“This event affirms that reactors located outside active earthquake zones are also at risk, and that increased steps to protect against earthquakes must be implemented at all sites. It is time to push aside industry and NRC foot-dragging and strengthen nuclear reactor safety regulations.”


Paul Gunter, director of reactor oversight at the group Beyond Nuclear, echoed Clements’s sentiments.

“Once again, Mother Nature is warning us that nuclear power is the most brittle of electrical power systems,” Gunter said.

The earthquake comes at a sensitive time for the NRC and the nuclear industry, which is dealing with the fallout from the March disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi power plant.


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A task force mandated by President Obama in the aftermath of the Japanese disaster said in a report released last month that the NRC should make wide-ranging improvements to the “existing patchwork of regulatory requirements and other safety initiatives.”

The report also said current NRC regulations pose no “imminent threat” to safety and stressed that a disaster on the scale of the one that occurred in Japan following a massive earthquake and tsunami is unlikely in the United States.

NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko laid out a plan to review the report’s recommendations within 90 days and implement any regulatory changes within five years — a speedy timeline for an agency that took about 10 years to overhaul its rules after 9/11.

Jaczko has faced some resistance from the NRC commissioners on the plan. While they agree with the need to act quickly on the recommendations, some have suggested Jaczko’s timeline is unrealistic.

Last week, the commissioners came to a compromise, instructing technical staff to analyze most of the recommendations within 45 days. But, much to the chagrin of nuclear watchdog groups, the commission gave staff 18 months to analyze the report’s most sweeping recommendation — that the NRC rethink its regulatory framework.

Nuclear power critics and liberal Democrats in Congress have pressed the NRC to move more quickly to adopt the recommendations.

“The Japanese were not prepared for the disaster that hit them on March 11,” Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said earlier this month at a hearing. “That is the lesson learned from Fukushima. We cannot afford to make the same mistake. We should make improvements that will enhance safety and preparedness for unforeseen disasters.”

But even some proponents of quickly adopting the task force’s recommendations warn against reading too much into Tuesday’s earthquake.

Robert Alvarez, a former senior policy adviser at the Energy Department under then-President Bill Clinton, said the earthquake shouldn’t be seen as “Mother Nature’s warning that we need to adopt the [task force’s] recommendations.”

That warning, he said, came from the disaster in Japan.

“I don’t think the quake has caused any reason to be alarmed with what’s happening with this reactor, but the problem here is that a much more important warning has come out of Japan about what can happen and how nature can overcome the best engineering judgments we have,” said Alvarez, who is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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Amid the chaotic aftermath of Tuesday’s earthquake, Dominion Virginia Power stressed that its North Anna reactors, which generate enough electricity to power 450,000 homes, were built to withstand major earthquakes.

“U.S. nuclear power stations, including Dominion’s four stations, were built to seismic standards for their regions, and safety systems designed to those standards would direct operators to shut down the reactors in the event of an earthquake,” the company said in a news release.

Dominion spokesman Ryan Frazier said the reactors at the North Anna plant were built to withstand a 5.9- to 6.1-magnitude earthquake and have additional safety measures in the event of an even larger seismic event.

Still, Dominion quickly declared an “alert,” the second-lowest of four federal emergency classifications, on Tuesday at North Anna. And the NRC said a dozen plants in the eastern part of the United States declared “unusual events,” the lowest of the four emergency classifications, because of the quake.

The nuclear industry, for its part, said the systems put in place in the event of a loss of power at the plant “responded as designed.”

“U.S. nuclear energy facilities have been tested repeatedly by Mother Nature this summer, with tornadoes in the Southeast and record flooding in Nebraska,” Nuclear Energy Institute Chief Nuclear Officer Tony Pietrangelo said in a release.

“They have successfully met these challenges because plant personnel are fully trained and proficient in their duties within a multilayered protective strategy that has multiple defenses to ensure safety even in the face of extreme events.”

NRC said Tuesday that its inspectors were monitoring the conditions at the North Anna plant, as well as the plants that have declared “unusual events.”