Nuclear nightmare: Could a Japan happen here?

The disaster in Japan sparked by the massive undersea earthquake and resulting tsunami on March 11 is a terrifying reminder of nature's fury. But the natural disaster may pale in comparison to the toll wrought by potential meltdowns at several of Japan's nuclear power stations. Could disaster strike at the Dominion North Anna Power Plant in nearby Louisa?

That seems to depend on who you ask.

Actual earthquake damage to North Anna is not likely, according to UVA Geology professor Thomas Biggs, who notes that while Virginia does lie atop several faults, none seem likely to spawn major quakes. In fact, he says, the several small earthquakes in the past decades– including two in 2003– have remained under 4.0 on the Richter Scale. That's enough to rattle but certainly not topple houses– or nuclear reactors.

"All of our faults are pretty old," says Biggs, noting that while there are some along the Atlantic Coast that are "mildly active," but not anything like the places that have recently suffered major earthquakes.

"We don't have the tectonic setting they have in Japan, Chile, New Zealand," says Biggs, noting that California, due to its position atop two tectonic plates sliding side by side, remains at highest risk for major temblors.

Even if a massive quake did somehow trigger an East Coast tsunami, Biggs says, Charlottesville (and the North Anna plant) wouldn't be within reach of the wave. But, he notes that while a wall of water reaching us here– nearly 600 feet above sea level– is highly unlikely, it is possible. Biggs mentions the Chesapeake Bay impact crater, which wasn't well understood by geologists until 1993.

More than 50 miles across and nearly a mile deep, the crater suggests a massive meteor impact occurring approximately 35 million years ago that sent water, rock, and sediment miles into the sky and caused an unimaginably massive tsunami to wash over even the Blue Ridge and reach what is now Staunton. (If such an event does recur, may we suggest that you head west on U.S. 250 to reduce the almost certain traffic snarl on I-64?)

If direct quake damage to the power station is unlikely, there are realistic reasons to be concerned about North Anna, according to Elena Day of the Charlottesville-based People's Alliance for Clean Energy, which has been fighting expansion plans there and calling for greater security measures at the existing reactors.

Day mentions the relatively small amount of water available from the 9,600-acre Lake Anna for cooling the reactors if a problem occurs– a shortage that worsens during drought conditions. Should a mechanical failure of the cooling system occur, says Day, noting the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the former Soviet Union, there's also a chance that the back-up generators could fail, allowing the fuel rods to overheat and release potentially large amounts of radiation.

Nuclear industry experts say current safety standards in the U.S. far surpass security measures in place at Chernobyl or even at the U.S. nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, where a partial core meltdown occurred in 1979. But Day remains concerned with North Anna, including the fact that the water used to cool steam from the reactors is pumped back into the lake at high temperatures, a kind of thermal pollution that can harm flora and fauna and which she describes as a violation of federal law.

But perhaps the greatest threat of catastrophe, Day contends, would come from damage to the dam that maintains the water at North Anna. Noting that there's no other large scale water supply, she says overheating would be nearly inevitable.

"Somebody could drive a truck loaded with dynamite and breach that dam, and then what?" asks Day.

Dominion's manager of nuclear public affairs, Richard Zuercher, says the company has extensive security in place to protect the dam from attack, and says the plant is built to withstand an earthquake more powerful than any on record in Virginia.

"Our operators," says Zuercher, "are trained on every imaginable accident, scenario, or condition."

Clarification: The original version of this article stated that water used to cool the fuel rods is pumped back into the lake. The water that reenters the lake has been used only for cooling steam, according to Dominion's Richard Zuercher, and has not come into contact with the fuel rods.

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"But Day remains concerned with the North Anna, including the fact that the water used to cool the fuel rods is pumped back into the lake at high temperatures,"

I'm fairly certain that doesn't happen. What does happen is that water from the lake is used to cool the water that cools the fuel rods. Cooling water within the reactor is or should be in a closed system, and water from the lake would not be mixed with it.

Ooooh, sensationalism!

One of the most interesting aspects of this article is the reporting of the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater. Amazing that this went undiscovered until just recently, and the complete devastation and change on the landscape that it brought with it.

The take away - Mother Nature always has the upper hand and perhaps the biggest danger to the human race is not earthquakes, tsunamis, or meteors striking the earth, but fear.

"When it comes to the nuclear power disaster unfolding in Japan, there is far more to fear than fear itself. But fear is one of the biggest — and could turn out to be the most potent — dangers.

Although radiation escaping from a nuclear power plant catastrophe can increase the risk of many cancers and other health problems, stress, anxiety and fear ended up in many ways being much greater long-term threats to health and well-being after Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and other nuclear accidents, experts said Monday. "

"Somebody could drive a truck loaded with dynamite and breach that dam, and then what?" asks Day.

I don't know Ms. Day....what?

Is the dy-no-mite! set to ignite? Perhaps the truck would just roll off the dam.......

Ms. Day- don't stay in the sun too long this will harm you

Here we go.."over designed to meet any probable local hazards, fully federally licensed and inspected, multiple backups, better,more modern design than japan's, highly trained staff and security..." now seeing what happened in japan, do you feel happy or OK about North Anna? When things go wrong-they can go VERY wrong.

The transfer of any energy source into one that can be used safely by the masses will have dangers involved. Those that are relatively safe such as solar and wind don't create enough efficiently to be a primary source. We could just use less and take a step back to a more primitive lifestyle.

Until I read this beautifully written article I was not against nuclear power plants as a way to supply our energy needs, but now I am convinced that doing with less is far preferable to what is described here, and maybe it is time we all consider the thirst we have for what Oliver Kuttner so aptly calls" future creep "- supplying to peak demand--maybe it is time for all of us to do with less and avoid our own homegrown catastrophe. Does any one believe these companies when they tell you " Our operators," says Zuercher, "are trained on every imaginable accident, scenario, or condition." ?

I'm sure the people of Japan were told this as well.

In Japan, No Time Yet for Grief
Sendai, Japan

" People have acquired a desire for technology that surpasses human comprehension. Yet the bill that has come due for that desire is all too dear."

In Japan, No Time Yet for Grief
Sendai, Japan

A list of major earthquakes that have effected Virginia:

Even closer to C'ville is the UVA reactor at O-Hill. While not as sensational as the North Anna plant, it's enough to make end times of us all.

Didnt they get rid of O hill years ago?

Apparently it is no longer in use for nuclear purposes . I found this at a 2010 newsplex article after there was a hazmat scare . The High Energy Physics Lab is located there .

"the building hasn't been used as a nuclear reactor in years "

Correction: the hazmat scare at the High Energy Physics Lab was in May 2009.

Earthquake shortens the day and brings Japan closer to the U.S.

When considering the Japan Nuclear Accident please consider what actually happened. The plant had a major design flaw in terms of the backup power supply source. The fuel tanks that powered the diesel generators where swept away by the tsunami. If the tanks had been stored off the ground or below it almost none of these would have happened.
New designs with safe passive cooling can all but eliminate these types of problems Japan is now dealing with. Again the tsunami caused more of a problem then the actual earthquake.

Living 50 miles from a COAL electrical plant for 1 year generates 3X as much background radition as living 50 miles from a nuclear plant. Eating a banana produces more radiation then living near a nuclear plant.

When you considering the entire supply chain there is no question that coal fired electrical plants kill more every year from mining to exposure of heavy metals in the air then have died in the history of american nuclear power generation. That's all before the effects of global warming are put into the mix.

Nuclear power can be the safest way for this nation to wean itself from foreign oil and reduce the effects of a coal economy. It's a tragedy of ignorance that denies america a better future that responsible nuclear power affords this country and the planet as a whole.

Alternatively watch the video Picnic in the Death Zone about
Chernobyl. Weird and chastening at the same time.

Also read about the famous Demon Ball of Plutonium at
Los Alamos. But not to worry at least one Russian
scientist says vodka is a great antioxidant just cleans
up those nasty free radicals.

The plant and the cooling pool sit directly on a known fault. The reactors are well fortified, but the cooling pool is not. If a quake makes the pool leak the spent fuel rods will become exposed and catch fire. Then its adios muchachos.

Check your homeowners policy. No American insurance company covers damages due to radiological emissions. Of course you can move back when the radiation dies down... in about 5,000 years.

One further note, the Japanese plants used a common American reactor designed by General Electric. "Because at G.E., we bring good things to light."