Report: 27 U.S. Nuclear Reactors Need Upgrades To Avoid Severe Damage From Earthquakes

The North Anna Power Plant

When a 5.8 earthquake in Virginia shook the North Anna nuclear power station, about 12 miles from the quake’s epicenter, the plant lost power and shut down. Later, officials discovered that massive containers storing spent fuel had even shifted during the earthquake at the North Anna plant. But according to a review of nuclear plants across the central and eastern U.S., the North Anna nuclear reactors are not alone — at least 27 nuclear reactors are at risk of severe accident because of an earthquake.

The preliminary review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, ongoing for six years but which became a priority following Japan’s massive earthquake in March that led to a disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant, found that the reactors are vulnerable to larger earthquakes than previously assumed and need upgrades to withstand the potential tremors. And the regulators suggested that the operators at all 104 commercial reactors review their facilities’ vulnerabilities to earthquake damage.

The industry and regulators say the reactors are safe as is for now, but an Associated Press report showed that NRC experts were still concerned:

After the March earthquake in Japan that caused the biggest nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, NRC staffers fretted in emails that the agency’s understanding of earthquake risk for existing reactors was out of date.

In a March 15 email, for example, an NRC earthquake expert questioned releasing data to the public showing how strong an earthquake each plant was designed to withstand.

The seismologist, Annie Kammerer, acknowledged that recent science showed stronger quakes could happen. “Frankly, it is not a good story for us,” she wrote to agency colleagues.

The upgrades needed for the North Anna plant and others like it are unclear, but the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will need to take action to ensure the reactors highlighted in the review are protected. Or, as Peter Sinclair wrote after the Virginia earthquake, the U.S. could turn its attention to other forms of energy because, “As of now, no reports of shutdowns, oil spills, or radioactive leaks at any wind turbines.”

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