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Earthquake exceeded North Anna reactors' design specs: NRC nixes Dominion request for quick restart

A decades long saga of deception, best guess work and an emerging reality is now exposing just how much (or little) “margin of safety” really exists for inherently dangerous nuclear power plants built near and operating on earthquake fault lines. 

The two-unit North Anna nuclear power plant in Mineral, Virginia remains shut down under increasing scrutiny as the result of an automatic SCRAM caused by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake on August 23, 2011 centered 11 miles away.  While the main electrical grid never lost power, the reactors experienced a loss of offsite power following a failure in the plant’s electrical switchyard that disconnected all of the reactors’ safety systems from their main power source. The reactors automatically switched over to four onsite emergency diesel generators as designed. However, one of the backup generators lost cooling and failed.

Following the August 23, 2011 earthquake, it took over a week for Dominion Nuclear to admit that the earthquake also impacted North Anna's onsite dry cask storage for high-level radioactive waste, shifting 25 of 27 nuclear waste loaded vertical containers up to several inches, and damaging the concrete surface of empty horizontal containers. CNN interviewed Beyond Nuclear 's Kevin Kamps on the deadly risks of dry cask storage. Beyond Nuclear continues to advocate for Hardened On-Site Storage (HOSS) which would include better defending dry casks against earthquakes as well as from attack and sabotage.

A preliminary analysis by plant owner Dominion has found that the earthquake’s ground motion was twice what the North Anna nuclear power plant was designed for.  Dominion managers met with NRC officials on September 8, 2011 to provide their preliminary damage assessment and restart schedule.  According to Dominion’s initial finding, no “safety-related” reactor systems, structures or components were damaged by the quake.  With both units down, Unit 2 is going into a refueling outage now scheduled to be completed by October 13, 2011. Dominion intends to use the Unit 2 refueling outage for the intensified inspections for quake damage. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approval is needed before the reactors will be allowed to restart.  Dominion had intended to use the enhanced inspections at Unit 2 as the basis for NRC approval of an ambitious if not hasty restart of Unit 1 by September 22, 2011. However, NRC pushed back that more questions not less are likely to impact the Unit 1 restart date. The agency has sent in an inspection team which will remain on site for several weeks. One particular focus of NRC will be its review of company activity to assure that the quake did not damage the nuclear fuel in the reactor cores or the irradiated nuclear waste stored in the spent fuel pools. One clear question now regards the level of detail the company intends to submit to NRC for restart approval. When questioned, Dominion intends to submit only a summary of its inspection findings and conclusions for restart readiness.

The fact that the reactors safely shut down, this time, is outweighed by a more glaring fact that Virginia Electric Power Company (VEPCO) was allowed to build the reactor astride the earthquake fault line and originally lied to a federal licensing  agency about the fault line’s existence.  The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League published its exposé The Devil and the Reactor documenting the original decade-long licensing intervention work of the late June Allen disclosing an elaborate collusion of a government and corporation to cover-up the earthquake risks beginning in the late 1960s in order to complete the construction and operating licenses of the nuclear reactors.

VEPCO’s safety analysis report relied upon for the original construction permit deleted earlier findings in a geologic study to make its claim to the federal licensing board that “Faulting at the site is neither known nor suspected.” A lawsuit organized by June Allen and the North Anna Environmental Coalition brought in a geologist to prove that the construction site was above an earthquake fault line.  The citizen intervention subsequently led to a determination by the NRC and the Virginia Attorney General Office that VEPCO deliberately deleted maps indicating  known fault lines from the construction application along with six other findings of “making material false statements” on the earthquake risk.  The cover-up ran much deeper than a nuclear power company willfully lying under oath in its application.  In fact, high ranking NRC officials knowledgeable of the deception kept the company’s illegal secret from their own federal licensing board.  After fining the company a mere $32,000 for lying about the earthquake risk, on April 1, 1978 the NRC granted VEPCO a 40 year operating license for North Anna.  Then, on March 20, 2003, NRC rubberstamped a 20 year license extension on top of North Anna's original 40 year license -- seismic risks are excluded from license extension decision making proceedings, by NRC fiat.