Quake Should be a Wake-up Call

The Virginia earthquake cleaved a four-foot crack near the top of the Washington Monument some 80 miles away, exposed shortcomings in our first responders’ abilities to communicate during emergencies, and rattled office workers in a Detroit skyscraper. But it remains to be seen if the 5.8 magnitude quake was strong enough to shake the government’s stubborn belief that U.S. nuclear reactors are safe.

Sure, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) enlarged its inspection team at the North Anna nuclear reactor station, located just 12 miles from the quake’s Mineral epicenter. But extra inspectors headed to the site only after Dominion Virginia Power, which operates the two reactors, reported that ground motion from the quake may have exceeded their design capability.

Underscoring what a close call this might have been, the earthquake at the North Anna site caused the a reactor containment wall to crack, which Dominion described as “cosmetic.” The quake caused ground motion beneath 25 of 27 spent fuel casks weighing a total of about 400,000 tons (roughly equivalent in weight to four aircraft carriers) to move as much as 4.5 inches. More troubling, the reactors’ cores may have been affected. That the ground shifted beneath enormous, heavy objects begs some questions. First, were more vulnerable items such as pipes, pumps, spent-fuel pools and electrical systems damaged? Second, what about the safety of other U.S. reactors in earthquake zones?

The NRC inspectors have concluded that the quake’s ground motion constituted twice what the reactors were designed to withstand. To its credit, the NRC didn’t give Dominion a green light to restart the reactors and may be broadening the scope of its safety reviews. Former NRC Chairman Dale Klein says that this wake-up call may lead to government demands for retrofitting dozens of East Coast reactors.

As for other reactors, NRC staffers, in private, haven’t been so sanguine about earthquake vulnerabilities. Concerns were raised about piping and better emergency power supplies. As the Fukushima disaster unfolded six months ago, Brian Shero, the director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, admitted that the agency “didn’t know everything about the seismicity” in the central and Eastern U.S., according to an Associated Press investigative report. And, he asked, “Isn’t there a prediction that the West Coast is likely to get hit with some huge earthquake in the next 30 years or so? Yet we relicense their plants.”

These comments are hardly reassuring. Over the past 15 years, the deregulation of nuclear safety has made the NRC more and more dependent on the industry to self-report its problems and mistakes — creating an inherent conflict of interest. Clearly, the government should take action and reverse course. For instance, the current effort to revise earthquake risks at U.S. reactors is based on a loosely based system of industry self-reporting.

The hollowing out of the NRC began in the 1990s, after the Republican-controlled Congress, led by Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M, threatened to fire some 700 experts from NRC’s enforcement staff. Since then, the NRC has become more of an enabler than a regulator. In effect, it has lowered the safety bar. It’s no coincidence that U.S. reactors are now permitted to operate for years beyond their original design limits, and to save money by jamming more and more highly radioactive spent fuel into reactor pools originally intended to hold one-fifth of the waste they hold today.

Furthermore, the pools lack the steel-lined concrete barriers that should cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. The NRC doesn’t require operators to have back-up generators to keep used fuel rods cool if offsite power is lost. Even though they contain some of the largest concentrations of radioactivity on the planet, most U.S. spent-fuel pools at nuclear reactors are in ordinary industrial structures similar to those found at car dealerships and big-box stores.

An NRC task force convened after the Fukushima disaster recommended that the agency require that reactor operators take steps to prepare for the prolonged blackouts that can follow earthquakes and floods. That’s a long-overdue, common-sense requirement. But a majority of the members of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission want to delay deliberations over the panel’s recommendations.

Many of the task force’s recommendations were made by the NRC staff after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but recently released NRC documents indicate the nuclear industry was able to stonewall these upgrades for six years. Those that were implemented were watered down.

Apparently, it might take more than a 5.8 earthquake in Mineral to shake the commissioners out of business-as-usual mode.