The Alliance for Progressive Values’ statement on the August 23rd 2011 East Coast Earthquake and its significance in the debate over Nuclear Power.
Just before 2 p.m. on the afternoon of August 23rd an earthquake, centered near Mineral, Virginia, but felt as far away as New York City and Boston struck the East Coast of the United States. The quake has been measured at between a 5.8 and 5.9 on the Richter scale, making it a strong seismic event. While initial reports indicated that the quake occurred comparatively near the earth’s surface and caused little immediately visible damage and no loss of life, it raises serious questions nonetheless about the ability of the many nuclear power facilities in the affected area to withstand a severely disruptive seismic event.
The power industry has been quick to down play the chances of any particular event happening in any particular year. They have lauded their safety measures in the “remote” event such a disaster did occur and a reactor was damaged, and they have consistently minimized the impact of such damage on the communities near the facilities. Until very recently the threat of earthquakes to plants in the Eastern region of the country has been ignored. Yet a study commission by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2005 (and still not completed), on seismic hazards to the domestic commercial nuclear power industry identified serious concerns with two dozen plants, mostly in the Midwest and East. The study expresses specific concerns over a magnitude 6 earthquake occurring and quote “surprising us” in the East. In August of 2010 the NRC released estimates of the risks associated with the nation’s 104 existing commercial facilities: of the top ten reactors in the most danger of damage from earthquake, nine (9) were in the East including the North Anna site in Virginia whose risk factor increased by 38%. In light of these factors and the ongoing catastrophic events in Japan stemming from the earthquake/tsunami/meltdown less than six months ago, and with the repeated questions about security, design and fail-safe issues that continue to dog the industry, APV believes it is time to step back and seriously reconsider the future of nuclear power in Virginia and in the United States.
In Virginia, the two reactors at the aging North Anna nuclear power plant in Louisa County (7 out of 10 on the NRC risk list) shut down during the quake. The North Anna facility lost outside power and was forced to use its diesel generators (one of which failed), to power the pumps that keep the fuel rods from overheating and the reactor from melting down. Dominion Power, which operates the plant at North Anna, claims that the generators can provide enough electricity to supply power to emergency safety systems indefinitely, but of course this presupposes that the generators themselves have not been damaged and have enough fuel to operate, and that the Lake Anna Dam which supplies water to the plant has not been damaged as well, neither of which is assured during an ongoing disaster. Had the quake’s damage to local roads and rail lines been more severe, as is often the case in major seismic events, we might now be counting down the hours until the generators ceased to work and a crisis ensued. North Anna sits a mere forty (40) miles northwest of the state capitol in Richmond (metropolitan area population 1.2 million). Moving such a large group of people in the short time frame generated by a possible core meltdown would be nearly impossible under the best of circumstances, and in the event of a serious emergency (earthquake, hurricane, tornadoes) with transportation, communications and other logistical apparatus compromised, the idea of mass evacuations is simply laughable. And Richmond is not alone. There’s a nuclear plant fifty (50) miles outside of the nation’s capitol in Maryland, and the Indian Point facility (Ramapo Fault Line), is within twenty five (25) miles of the New York City skyline (8.3 million people). Twelve (12) facilities from North Carolina to Michigan reported unusual events on the 23rd. We can be glad that no serious damage appears to have been done this time, but we cannot remain complacent in the face of real threats.
As the catastrophe in Fukushima prefecture illustrates, large scale, devastating events do occur. These are not hypothetical worst case scenarios. The Surry plant in southeastern Virginia shut down in April of 2011 due to damage from tornadoes. While earthquakes are not common on the East Coast, they are clearly not unheard of as recent events prove and the North Anna plant (which Dominion Power is planning to expand), was built directly on the Spotsylvania Fault Line that runs through central Virginia. The Mid-Atlantic is prone to hurricanes the severity and frequency of which are predicted to rise in the future due to global climate change. Again, in the event of possible widespread damage to infrastructure in affected areas, there are legitimate questions about how well the emergency measures for the facilities will perform.
Nuclear technology is inherently unsafe. Even under the best of circumstances the reactors are incredibly complex systems designed to use some of the most dangerous substances in the world to essentially boil water. Even with multiple safe guards, things can go wrong, the unexpected can happen, a series of small events can cascade out of control in a short time and very bad things can occur, affecting large populations and national and international economies.
To the existing and very real dangers posed by tornadoes, hurricanes, forest fires, flooding, terrorist attacks, design flaws and human error we must now reconsider the threat of damage from earthquakes. The North Anna plant was rated to withstand an earthquake of 5.9 to 6.2, the East Coast quake was variously reported at 5.8, 5.9 and 6.0. We can’t know exactly what the seismic readings at the plant were during the quake since the equipment used to measure and collect the data was removed over a decade ago because of budget cuts.
Nuclear energy is not clean (uranium mining is dangerous to the environment, local populations and the miners doing the digging, and there is still no widely accepted long term plan for storing the deadly radioactive waste the reactors produce).
Nuclear energy is not safe (reactors are tempting targets for terrorist sabotage or theft of nuclear material).
Nuclear energy is not cheap (nuclear energy costs a fortune to develop and still requires subsidies to keep rates competitive, and when one factors in the price of clean-up following an accident the cost skyrockets).
The events of August 23rd 2011 should be a wake up call for the people of Virginia and the nation as a whole to rethink in what direction we should go with our energy future. We will be told that because nothing very bad happened this time, that we can ignore the looming threat posed by an energy system predicated on the perpetual control of highly unstable radioactive materials by fallible humans. The Alliance for Progressive Values suggests a moratorium on further plant construction until more study can be done into minimizing the dangers posed by already existing plants and with an eye to their eventual decommission. We call for a renewed emphasis on clean, renewable, non-centralized sources of energy like wind, solar and tidal to power our state and nation in the 21st century.
In our relief at the relative lack of harm done by the east coast quake, let us not lose sight of the lesson we have been taught.
Stephanie Rodriguez, President, Alliance for Progressive Values.