The Earthquake and North Anna

Illustration adapted from Google Maps.  

Author's note: the date stamp reflects when I first posted this piece, it is being  updated as other sources of information become available.

I already knew that nuclear power presented problems with waste disposal and potential terrorism. Now I know about earthquakes.

Some pundits on the right used the quake as an opportunity to take a dig at a vacationing Obama or Paul Krugman, for his alleged statement on quakes being an economic stimulus on a faked google+ page. Some on the the left, such as Media Matters and Washington Monthly  took it as an opportunity to take a dig at the right.

I'm more concerned, though, with what Victor Gilinsky, an NRC commissioner at the time of Three Mile Island told Reuters,
It is important to review the seismic design of the plant in terms of current knowledge... "Instead, the NRC has been relicensing plants without any real safety review - they do not question any of the original licensing conditions, they only check to see whether the plant has a program to deal with old equipment. It's an irresponsible approach.
37.936°N, 77.933°W.  That's Tuesday's 5.8  earthquake epicenter and only  eleven miles as the crow flies,  from Dominion Energy's North Anna nuclear plant in Virginia.

The Nuclear Regulatory Agency (NRC) tells us Dominion's reactors lost external power and had to switch to four diesel generators.  According to Bloomberg, the NRC's David McIntyre one of those four diesel generators stopped working after startup.  Chris Gadomski, a nuclear analyst for Bloomberg explained why that's problematic:
If we lose the backup diesel generators at North Anna, you can have a similar situation as Fukushima developing there. Virginia Power should try to restore offsite power as soon as possible.

Just this spring, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) had rated North Anna as the seventh most vulnerable plant. in the U.S., based on plant design and probability of earthquakes. Virginia's central seismic zone, where Tuesday's quake occurred, is one of the areas in the state where quakes are more common.

After the  quake, former Department of Energy official Bob Alvarez told the watchdog group POGO, 

The spent fuel pools at North Anna contain 4-5 times more than their original designs intended. As in Japan, all U.S. power nuclear power plant spent fuel pools do not have steel lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required to have back-up generators to keep used fuel rods cool, if offsite power is lost. Even though they contain these very large amount of radioactivity, spent reactor fuel pools in the U.S. are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to protect them against the elements.
Alvarez's complete blog post is here.  In it he discusses a concern beyond core damage, presented by earthquakes:  what would happen to the water-filled pools used to store spent fuel at most U.S. nuclear plants.

On April 25,Reed Williams (email) at the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported 

Tuesday's earthquake apparently shook small protective devices at the North Anna Power Station enough to shut down the plant's two nuclear reactors....Dominion Virginia Power would not say exactly when it expects the reactors — representing nearly 13 percent of the state's electric generating capacity — will start producing power again, but it will likely take days....

Data journalist David Kroodsma (email) put together interactive maps of earthquake risks to U.S. nuclear power plants.  I've asked him for specifics on North Anna after the August 23 quake.  He wrote back that he's on vacation, but I hope to get some answers upon his return to work.

In Blacksburg, Virginia  Tech  evacuated the library because the sixth floor was shaking. On the second floor, where I was sitting,  the floor merely  jiggled, as if the person in the next computer carrel was rocking in his chair. According to the University's Department of Geosciences, a magnitude 5.5 eastern U.S. earthquake usually can be felt as far away as 300 miles and sometimes causes damage as far away as 25 mi.  The Department has a page dedicated to the August 23 quake here.

With dense surface rock and and an origin only 3.7 miles deep, Callan Bentley of Northern Virginia Community College and Alexis Madrigal over at The Atlantic explain why  the Virginia quake spread to 22 states and Washington, D.C.  In Washington, three pinnacles on the National Cathedral crumbled, the Washington Monument cracked  and National Mall monuments closed. NBC's Jim MiklaszewskiI says that he, like many other people in the Pentagon,  thought they'd been hit again, as they had been on 9-11.  In New York City, the police ordered the evacuation of City Hall.

Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle said the plant was designed to withstand an earthquake of this size. But Edwin Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists told Reuters,
It was uncomfortably close to design basis...If Fukushima wasn't a wake-up call, this really needs to be to get the NRC and industry moving to do seismic reviews of all the nuclear power plants in the country.

As recently as August 1, his group had questioned why the NRC wasn't implementing its own task force recommendations on safety:
If the Commissioners delay action on the grounds that they do not yet have enough information about what happened at Fukushima to move forward with the recommendations, then it means the NRC also does not have enough information to move forward with relicensing existing reactors or licensing new reactors. In this case, the NRC should institute a moratorium on such business dealings until enough information about Fukushima is available to move ahead on both safety and business issues
It's not like problems at North Anna are new, As Sue Sturgis at the Institute for Southern Studies Studies pointed out :

The risks of a quake at North Anna were known as far back as 1970. In 1975, then-owner Vepco was fined $60,000 -- the maximum allowed by law -- for building the plant over a known geologic fault, the Washington Post reported at the time. Vepco was convicted of making 12 false statements to the NRC about the fault's existence.

So, despite the assurances from the utility and its supposed regulators, I'll continue to wonder about the wisdom of our nuclear renaissance, especially in the wake of Fukushima.  Despite the campaign by the purveyors of nuclear power and fossil fuels, there are better ways to meet our needs for electricity.


More earthquake coverage: 

East Coast earthquake: How does a 5.9 temblor happen in Virginia?: Fault lines in the East are not as apparent or as active as in the West, but certain stresses can lead to a rupture. Tuesday's East Coast Earthquake was the biggest in 100 years.