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Friday, August 26, 2011

U.S. NUCLEAR DISASTER?: Earthquake’s Nuclear Red Flag!

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Daniel Stone, / Aug 25, 2011 11:09 PM EDT.

Earthquake Virginia Reactors
Steam in vented from secondary cooling systems at the North Anna Nuclear power plant in Mineral, Va., Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. , Steve Helber / AP Photo.

A small malfunction at a Virginia nuclear plant during Tuesday’s quake has raised new concerns about whether America’s nuclear facilities can withstand forceful ground shaking. By Daniel Stone.

It wasn’t only the shaking that rattled the East Coast. The surprise earthquake this week created new rumblings about the ability of U.S. nuclear plants to withstand a heavy shaking, an issue with heightened sensitivities after Japan’s meltdown earlier this year.

The North Anna Power Station in Mineral, Va., was less than 20 miles from the epicenter of Tuesday’s quake, and it got fresh scrutiny after both its reactors shut down automatically when outside electricity to the plant was cut off. 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission initially reported that the plant’s emergency safeguards worked just fine as diesel generators automatically kicked in to keep nuclear rods and spent fuel safe in storage facilities and cool water ponds.

But it did not happen without a minor snag. 

According to the incident report published hours after the quake, one of North Anna’s four power generators didn’t start properly, as it had been designed to. It was taken off line, and power from another generator off site was routed through to make the system fully operational. Following inspections of the facility and its sensitive parts, both reactors were brought back online.

That scenario raised concerns among nuclear safety and environmental advocates, especially because the NRC already has begun the process of approving a third reactor to be built at the North Anna plant, even as the agency’s own internal research shows the site has far more seismic risk than was thought when it was first chosen and built four decades ago. 

Initial research suggested the first two reactors should be suited for the seismic equivalent of a 6.5 earthquake, but the third reactor will be constructed to withstand larger ground movement equivalent to about a 7.5. The disparity is not minor: a 7.5 earthquake is 10 times stronger than a 6.5.

The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which monitors nuclear and environmental safety in the Southeast, has filed a lawsuit to block construction of the third reactor. The entire area is unsafe for nuclear generation, the group says, and the facility, currently run by Dominion Power, previously had sought minor safety exemptions from the NRC for a boiling-water reactor and a pressurized-water reactor. The group also alleges in a report that during the permitting process in the 1970s, plant officials hid from regulators knowledge of a fault line below the area.

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