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.Read more on: north anna power plant