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Virginia earthquake shakes U.S. awake to nuclear power danger

August 29, 2011

by Janette D. Sherman, M.D.

This photo of the North Anna Nuclear Power Station in Central Virginia’s Louisa County was taken at the hot water discharge to Lake Anna in August 2006. – Photo: Mort Fryman, The Virginian-Pilot
I live in a steel and concrete high rise building across the Potomac from Washington, D.C. The whole room heaved and shook and then it looked like a poltergeist had set my rocking chairs into motion. This was the earthquake of Aug. 23. The quake measured a 5.8 magnitude with the epicenter less than four miles deep, thus the shaking was felt from North Carolina to New England.

News cameras showed people congregating outside of buildings, including the Pentagon in D.C. and in New York City, as people evacuated. Friends and family from the West Coast called to remind me, “Duck and cover,’’ the safety procedure either ignored or forgotten.

The quake was centered in the small town of Mineral, Virginia, just 84 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., and has been followed by at least four aftershocks – the most recent measuring 4.5 and occurring at 1:07 a.m. on Aug. 25.

Located also in Louisa County and about 10 miles from the epicenter are the two North Anna nuclear power reactors that initially lost off-site power. They were automatically taken off line, but one of the plant’s four backup emergency generators failed immediately after the earthquake. The owner, Dominion Power Co., said the disrupted water flow posed “no risk to the public.”

For earthquakes, each increase in level of magnitude is 10 times the previous whole number, thus the March 11 quake in Japan that measured 9.0 was more than 300 times greater than the Virginia quake. That is of little comfort to those who live in proximity to the North Anna Nuclear Power plant, where water levels dropped 22 inches in one day.

Dominion reports that each of the plant’s two nuclear reactors pumps 1 million gallons of water a minute into the North Anna Lake. The North Anna plant is built to sustain a 6.2 magnitude earthquake. Calculated on the basis of the event of Aug. 23, which was only 4 times less, there’s not much cushion for comfort.

Following the Japanese disaster, MSNBC news – based upon Nuclear Regulatory Commission data but not released by the NRC – did an in-depth report on earthquake risks at U.S. nuclear plants. The following are the 10 plants with the greatest risk of core damage caused by an earthquake, with North Anna coming in seventh:

1. Indian Point 3, Buchanan, N.Y., 1 in 10,000 chance per year

2. Pilgrim 1, Plymouth, Mass., 1 in 14,493

3. Limerick 1 and 2, Limerick, Pa., 1 in 18,868

4. Sequoyah 1 and 2, Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., 1 in 19,608

5. Beaver Valley 1, Shippingport, Pa., 1 in 20,833

6. Saint Lucie 1 and 2, Jensen Beach, Fla., 1 in 21,739

7. North Anna 1 and 2, Louisa, Va., 1 in 22,727

8. Oconee 1 and 2, Seneca, S.C., 1 in 23,256

9. Diablo Canyon 1 and 2, Avila Beach, Calif., 1 in 23,810

10. Three Mile Island, Middletown, Pa., 1 in 25,000

The NRC’s odds consider both the chance for a serious quake and the strength of the plant’s design.

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.

A concern equal to that of core damage is that of the water-filled pools used to store spent fuel at most U.S. nuclear plants. Bob Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, has noted that the North Anna reactors are of the Westinghouse Pressurized Water design; and since going online in 1979 and 1980 respectively, the reactors have generated approximately 1,200 metric tons of spent fuel containing about 228,000 curies of highly radioactive materials – among the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States.

The spent fuel pools at North Anna contain four to five times more spent fuel than their original designs intended. The spent fuel rods must be stored under water to keep them from overheating and releasing high levels of radioactivity.

As in Japan, U.S. nuclear power plant spent fuel pools do not have steel lined, concrete barriers to cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required to have backup generators to pump water to keep used fuel rods cool if offsite power is lost, as happened at Fukushima.

Even though they contain these very large amounts of radioactivity, spent reactor fuel pools in the United States are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to protect them against the weather, but not against earthquakes, plane crashes or foreign or domestic intrusions.

Even though they contain these very large amounts of radioactivity, spent reactor fuel pools in the United States are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to protect them against the weather, but not against earthquakes, plane crashes or foreign or domestic intrusions.

Nearly 40 percent of the radioactivity in North Anna’s spent fuel pools is in the form of cesium-137, an isotope that is carcinogenic, damages genetic cells and concentrates in soft tissues of the body. It, like strontium-90, also released from nuclear plants, will take three centuries to dissipate.

On the West Coast of the United States are the Diablo Canyon – near San Luis Obispo – and San Onofre – north of San Diego – nuclear power plants. Each is located on the edge of the Pacific Ocean – “The Ring of Fire Quake Zone” – and upwind of large populations.

There has been concerted effort to close all nuclear power plants and close first those that are located in areas of earthquake activity. Even if this were accomplished today, we as a society have no feasible plan to store the tons of waste already created by the 104 nuclear plants that are currently licensed in this country.

As taxpayers, we have paid billions to support nuclear power plants. Spending to develop solar power could solve much of our energy problem, teach new skills to our citizens and provide much needed jobs – building and maintaining alternative sources of power.

We must concentrate on distributed solar energy – power sources that are built, used and owned locally – not owned by a controlling corporate power. Distributed solar and wind energy eliminates the need for long-distance, costly transmission lines.

If we learn anything, we must learn about and pay attention to the harm still occurring from Chernobyl that exploded 25 years ago and from Fukushima that continues to spew radioactive materials into the air and water. We can do better: Conservation, wind, solar and other technologies are available if we as citizens demand them.

Dr. Sherman is an internist and toxicologist. She is the contributing editor of “Chernobyl – Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.” The information in the book will help you understand the serious and continuing hazards from nuclear power. She can be reached at and

Editor’s note: Dr. Sherman is internationally recognized for her expertise on the effects of radiation. In light of the danger worldwide, particularly on the West Coast of the U.S., from the Fukushima meltdowns, the worst nuclear disaster in history, she is so eager for everyone to know what a lifetime of research has taught her that she has had her book on Chernobyl, the ultimate authoritative source on the subject, reprinted and is making it available to the public for only $10; its original price is $150. You can order it at Look for the ad on the right side of the page.


7 thoughts on “Virginia earthquake shakes U.S. awake to nuclear power danger

  1. Mark Godes


    NOAA forecasts four extreme solar induced geomagnetic storms during this decade with the maximum threat in the next 3 to 5 years.

    NASA warns that such storms can collapse the power grid in the Eastern and Northwestern regions of the nation for months.

    A nuclear plant without grid power for a month is a meltdown candidate.

    See the Aesop Institute website for an overview of the problem and some possible solutions.

    Wise action fast enough can revitalize the economy and generate millions of jobs.

  2. George Lakins

    The difference between the Japan quake and the W Virginia quake is not a factor of 300 but rather, 1584. The relation ship is actually powers of 10, so a 6.8 is 10 times as powerful as 5.8. 7.8 is 100 times (10 X10), 8.8 is 1000 times (10 X 10 X 10) and so on. To figure out the difference, divide Japan by WV, which is 10 to the power of 9 (1 billion) by 10 to the power of 5.8 (just under 631,000).

    Conversly, the difference between the design for North Anna and the WV quake is only 2.5 times. This sounds close but it's still a factor of 2.5. If this factor was applied to you paycheck, we'd think it was a lot. It's the difference between $40,000 per year and $100,000 per year. Dr. Sherman should know this.

    1. Tom K

      I noticed that Dr. Sherman's numbers were wrong — thanks for correcting them.

      By the way, Mineral is Virginia — central VA, between Richmond and Charlottesville — not West Virginia.

  3. Clean Crusader

    Dr. Sherman has another typo – the design limit is 6.2 earthquake for Lake Anna, 5.8 earthquake is a factor of 4 less not 40. The quake was 25% of design limit for the cooling pond…Accidents happen and nuclear power is the biggest disaster in human history, noble gas pollution from nuclear power is the other untold story in climate change dynamics and stability of the earth's electromagnetic field.

  4. Ann_Garrison

    Yeah, but Fukushima be damned. One lesson from Libya is "don't give up your nukes," as Gaddafi did. "Despite Western assurances about nonproliferation, the enduring fact is that countries that feel threatened will, at a minimum, consider becoming nuclear-latent, if not outright open possessors of nuclear weapons." Japan could, e.g., build a nuclear bomb in a long weekend, though they've paid a high price for the capability.

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  6. physicsreviewboard

    Aesop Institute is a wonderfully elaborate fraud, operated by Mark Goldes.

    Mark Goldes, starting in the mid-seventies, engaged for several years in the pretense that his company SunWind Ltd was developing a nearly production-ready, road-worthy, wind-powered "windmobile," based on the windmobile invented by James Amick; and that therefore SunWind would be a wonderful investment opportunity.

    After SunWind "dried up" in 1983, Goldes embarked on the long-running pretense that his company Room Temperature Superconductors Inc was developing room-temperature superconductors; and that therefore Room Temperature Superconductors Inc would be a wonderful investment opportunity. He continues the pretense that the company developed something useful, even to this day.

    And then Goldes embarked on the pretense that his company Magnetic Power Inc was developing "NO FUEL ENGINES" based on "Virtual Photon Flux;" and then, on the pretense that MPI was developing horn-powered "NO FUEL ENGINES" based on the resonance of magnetized tuning-rods; and then, on the pretense that his company Chava Energy was developing water-fueled engines based on "collapsing hydrogen orbitals" (which are ruled out by quantum physics); and then, on the pretense that he was developing ambient-heat-powered "NO FUEL ENGINES" (which are ruled out by the Second Law of Thermodynamics).

    Goldes' forty-year career of "revolutionary invention" pretense has nothing to do with science, but only with pseudoscience and pseudophysics – his lifelong stock-in-trade.

    I have spent months investigating the career of Mark Goldes, Aesop Institute's Perpetual Scam Machine.

    1976: Goldes seeks investors with fraudulent claims to have developed a nearly production-ready, road-worthy, wind-propelled, wind-rechargeable "windmobile" that could reach 60 mph. Goldes has never developed any roadworthy windmobile.

    1998: Goldes fools the gullible US Air Force with his "room temperature superconductor" scam, receiving over four hundred thousand dollars in "Innovative Research" grants. Goldes has never produced any superconductor.

    2005: Goldes seeks investors with fraudulent claims that his company, MPI, is developing "Magnetic Power Modules" based on "Virtual Photon Flux."

    2008: Goldes seeks investors with fraudulent claims that "MPI is also developing breakthrough magnetic energy technologies including POWERGENIE (Power Generation of Electricity by Nondestructive Interference of Energy)." The basic idea of POWERGENIE is to generate electricity from sound energy, by blowing a horn at a magnetized tuning rod. Goldes claims to have "run an electric car for more than 4,800 miles with no need to plug-in." According to Goldes, "[MPI] Revenues from licenses and Joint Ventures are conservatively projected to exceed $1 billion annually by 2012."

    2009: Goldes seeks investors with fraudulent claims that his latest scamporation, Chava Energy, "has been developing enhanced theoretical and practical paths that lead towards commercialization of energy conversion systems that utilize hydrinos." He now claims to be "developing a Self Powered Internal Combustion Engine – SPICE(tm) powered by hydrinos." ("Hydrinos" are pure fiction and do not exist.)

    "For over 20 years Mark Goldes has claimed his company MPI has been developing machines that generate energy for free. In over 20 years his company has not presented one shred of evidence that they can build such machines…

    "For the past five years Mark Goldes has been promising generators 'next year.' He has never delivered. Like 'Alice in Wonderland' there will always be jam tomorrow, but never jam today."

    - Penny Gruber, December 2008

    - Gruber's comment was written almost five years ago – but it's just as true today – except that MPI, Goldes' corporation that he claimed would bring in one billion dollars in revenue from his horn-powered generator in 2012, is now defunct, having never produced any "Magnetic Power Modules" – just as his company called "Room Temperature Superconductors Inc" is also now defunct, having never produced any "room temperature superconductors." Evidently there's a limit to how many years in a row the same company can claim it will finally have something to demonstrate "next year." Now Goldes has a new scamporation, Chava Energy.

    Goldes' current favorite scam is an engine that would run on ambient heat – which is clearly ruled out by the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But of course, the laws of physics always make an exception for the scams of Mark Goldes.

    Mark Goldes is a textbook-ready example of a highly talented con artist who clearly takes pleasure in fooling people with his ludicrous claims, artfully peppered with pseudoscientific rubbish.


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