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Virginia Nuclear Plant Not Built to Withstand Last Week’s Earthquake

It appears that the inland waterways, particularly in Vermont, bore the worst hardship from Hurricane Irene, with flooding of areas that were probably less equipped to deal with such things than coastal regions. The amount of rain tacked on to an already wet August was too much for many tributaries to bear. The damage is still unfolding in Vermont and elsewhere along the eastern seaboard, and I don’t think the question should be about hype, but about preparedness in those inland regions.

That’s also true of the unexpected DC earthquake last week. The picture of the overturned lawn chair is funny and all, but because the region doesn’t get a lot of earthquakes, some of the infrastructure was unprepared. And while disaster has hopefully been avoided, this should raise caution, especially with respect to one nuclear plant in Virginia:

The earthquake that prompted the shutdown of a Virginia nuclear power plant last week may have been more severe than the plant’s reactors were designed to withstand, federal regulators said.

The revelation is likely to put increased pressure on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to quickly implement a series of safety recommendations intended in part to protect plants from major natural disasters like earthquakes.

NRC said Monday that its preliminary analysis indicates that the ground motion caused by the magnitude-5.8 earthquake near the North Anna Power Station in Louisa County, Va., exceeded the maximum level the two reactors at the plant were built to handle.

Nuclear plants cannot lose power. This has been the source of much of the trouble in Fukushima. In the case of North Anna, offsite power was lost, but backup diesel generators kicked in. However, if the plant started to crumble because it wasn’t built to withstand an earthquake of that magnitude, power could have become an issue. And then a hugely populated area could have been materially affected.

A few things here. First of all, these are the kinds of problems you simply don’t have with other forms of renewable energy. Second, as natural disasters grow more frequent, improving critical infrastructure design is just another cost of climate change, one that doesn’t get scored by the CBO, but one which exists and drains budgets. Third, it’s worth looking into whether one form of energy production – fracking – is leading to natural occurrences like earthquakes that threaten other forms of energy production.

But really, this is a story about how our infrastructure needs are even bigger than we thought.

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David Dayen

David Dayen