Earthquake Aftershocks

This blog was co-authored by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, and Mandy Hancock, SACE's former High Risk Energy Organizer.

Guest Blog | August 25, 2011 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Earlier this week a rare, unexpected 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck Mineral, Virginia and its tremors were felt for hundreds of miles as far away as New York, Ohio, and the Carolinas (see a few maps here). Fortunately, only minor damage was recorded in most areas. The quake was the largest in recent history for the region and has left many concerned about how prepared the East Coast is for earthquakes.

Aside from general concerns about building codes and public preparedness for quakes, the shutdown and loss of power to the nearby North Anna nuclear plant in Louisa, Virginia underscored the increasingly urgent need to address nuclear reactor safety here in the U.S., especially post-Fukushima. Both of Dominion Power’s North Anna reactors shut down when power was lost after the quake. Backup diesel generators began operating to maintain cooling systems in the reactors and the spent fuel pools, though one of the four generators did fail and had to be replaced. Power was restored a short time later, though the reactors will stay offline until further safety inspections are completed. Twelve other nuclear power plants reported “unusual events” due to the quake.

North Anna was designed to withstand earthquakes in the 5.9-6.1 range and was just 10 miles from the epicenter of a 5.8 quake. Are the nuclear reactors in this country prepared to handle seismic events greater than expected? U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Mass.) says that the quake should prompt the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to act more swiftly in implementing stricter safety regulations. This seems to be underscored by the disturbing discovery that the North Anna nuclear plant had seismic monitors in place, but that they were removed in the 1990’s due to budget cuts. The NRC recently released a post-Fukushima staff report detailing the “uneven” way in which reactor operators apply various safety recommendations by the NRC, resulting in “patchwork” regulations. Additionally, and separate from the Fukushima studies, the NRC had been re-evaluating the earthquake vulnerability of reactors in part based on new assessments by the U.S. Geological Survey. Many are rightly concerned that the current system is inadequate to protect the public from nuclear accidents that could result from unpredictable natural events.

Some additional resources:

  • Nuclear Information and Resource Service tracks current reactor events;
  • Local TV news coverage of the quake, highlighting nearby residents’ concerns;
  • Thorough blog in the Guardian, with additional links to content relevant to this blog;
  • NRC’s Near Term Task Force report on Fukushima and U.S. reactor safety.

The East Coast earthquake and the ongoing nuclear disaster in Japan provide two current examples of how there are rare natural events for which it is impossible both to predict and to fully prepare for. Though the risks of a severe accident at an operating nuclear reactor are low, the ramifications of what can happen when something goes wrong are immense. Nuclear power can be an unforgiving technology. And now, just days after the earthquake, much of the East Coast prepares for the onslaught of another natural event: Hurricane Irene. Wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to advance less risky energy choices such as energy efficiency and conservation and renewables such as solar and wind that don’t have the ability to severely contaminate our land and waterways and threaten the health and safety of our communities?

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