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East Coast quake rekindles nuclear plant safety concerns

Members of Congress say the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is moving too slowly on recommendations made after damage to plants in Japan's earthquake and tsunami.

August 27, 2011|By Tom Hamburger and Melanie Mason, Washington Bureau
  • Operators of the North Anna nuclear power plant in Mineral, Va., say there was no significant damage or threat to safety from last week's earthquake, but the incident has rekindled worries among members of Congress.
Operators of the North Anna nuclear power plant in Mineral, Va., say there… (Scott Olson, Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — The earthquake that rattled much of the East Coast last week is sparking angry calls from elected officials seeking an immediate reevaluation of seismic risks at two dozen or so commercial nuclear plants around the country, including two in California.

The frustration is directed at members of the federal agency charged with regulating commercial nuclear plants, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

"I question their dedication to safety," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in an interview.

In particular, she said she would press for an explanation from NRC members who recently declined to support immediate action on a list of safety recommendations from an internal agency task force.

Boxer said she was also concerned about seismic safety and evacuation plans at the Diablo Canyon and San Onofre nuclear power plants in California.

Last week's magnitude 5.8 earthquake was centered about a dozen miles from Dominion Power's aging North Anna nuclear plant. The quake triggered a shutdown of two reactors built more than 30 years ago to withstand a 5.9 to 6.1 quake.

The "close call," as some critics label it, led to demands from Boxer and others for new safety measures to protect plants against earthquakes and other natural disasters. In a letter sent to the NRC on Friday, Boxer asked whether the agency believed the safety margins of the North Anna plant had changed since the time the plant was built.

Dominion and NRC officials say the North Anna plant suffered little damage last week and that its safety systems worked effectively. A diesel generator used to power safety systems in case of emergency malfunctioned after the quake, but three other backup generators performed well and there was no effect on plant safety.

"The point is, the station is in good condition with multiple layers of defense," said David Heacock, Dominion's chief nuclear officer, the day after the quake. "We've already done extensive walk-throughs … and we've found virtually no damage" except minor cracks in some ceramic insulators on a transformer.

Despite assurances from utilities, elected officials are increasingly expressing alarm about earthquake risk. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has called the Indian Point nuclear plant in his state "a catastrophe waiting to happen," noting that a geological fault was recently discovered near the site.

Republicans in Washington are generally inclined to defend the industry and its record. But a Republican state senator in California, Sam Blakeslee, a geophysicist representing San Luis Obispo, has become skeptical of industry and NRC claims.

He took the lead in pushing for updated seismic information on nuclear plants in California, including data on a new fault discovered near the Diablo Canyon plant in his district.

Like Boxer and other members of the California congressional delegation, he wants the NRC to review the most recent seismic data and apply the data as it considers relicensing California plants.

"I have been very concerned that the NRC looks at earthquake threat through rose-colored glasses. Even after Fukushima, they rely on assertions from the industry," Blakeslee said, referring to the Japanese nuclear power plant devastated by an earthquake and tsunami earlier this year.

The NRC rejects such criticism. The agency has been investigating risks related to seismic activity since 2005 and revealed that 27 plants in the Central and Eastern United States might face higher risk of a damaging earthquake than previously thought.

The massive earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the subsequent damage to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, brought new attention to earthquake vulnerability of power plants in the United States. As a result, the NRC convened a task force to examine the agency's regulations in light of the Japanese radioactive leaks.

The task force issued 12 recommendations in July, including reshaping the agency's regulatory framework and developing updated information on seismic risk.

The agency's chairman, Gregory Jaczko, called on the commission to vote on the recommendations quickly, but some commissioners said his approach was too rushed.

At a Senate hearing earlier this month, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) praised the recommendations but, like Boxer, expressed concern that some commissioners were not likely to approve action on all 12 measures within three months.

"I know what delay means in this town," Sanders said. "It means nothing is going to happen."

In the interview Friday, Boxer complained of a pattern of delay at the NRC and said the majority of her committee was committed to pressing for faster action.

Boxer has found an ally in Jaczko, who wants the commission to adopt at least some of the task force recommendations quickly.

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