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

by Janette D. Sherman, M.D.

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 www.janettesherman.com and toxdoc.js@verizon.net.

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 www.sfbayview.com. Look for the ad on the right side of the page.