News Release

Nuclear Plant Near Earthquake Epicenter, with Hurricane Coming

The Washington Post is reporting that a 5.9 magnitude earthquake “rattled Washington. Buildings across the capital are evacuated after quake strikes 87 miles southwest of Washington. An official with the U.S. Geological Survey says there could be aftershocks.”

Available for a limited number of interviews, Alvarez is a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Energy and now a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. In June, Alvarez wrote a piece titled “America’s Nuclear Spent-Fuel Time Bombs: Japan’s nuclear disaster should serve as a wake-up call for the United States.

He said earlier this afternoon: “The earthquake measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale just occurred less than a hour ago. Its epicenter was in Mineral, Virginia — approximately ten miles from two nuclear power reactors at the North Anna site. According to statement by a representative of Dominion Power the two reactors were designed to withstand a 5.9 to 6.1 quake. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission ranked the North Anna Reactors as being 7th in the nation in terms of earthquake risks.

“It is not clear what damage might have been sustained at the nuclear site. The North Anna reactors are of the Westinghouse Pressurized Water design and went on line in 1979 and 1980 respectively. Since then the reactors have generated approximately 1,200 metric tons of nuclear spent fuel containing about 228,000 curies of highly radioactive materials — among the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States.

“The spent fuel pools at North Anna contain four to five times more than their original designs intended. As in Japan, all U.S. power nuclear power plant spent fuel pools do not have steel-lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity. They are not required 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, spent reactor fuel pools in the U.S. are mostly contained in ordinary industrial structures designed to protect them against the elements. The North Anna reactors may have large cavities beneath their pools which could exacerbate leakage.

“Nearly 40 percent of the radioactivity in the North Anna spent fuel pools is cesium-137. They hold about 15 to 30 times more Cs-137 than was released by the Chernobyl accident in 1986. In 2003, my colleagues and I issued a study that warned that drainage of a pool might cause a catastrophic radiation fire, which could render an area uninhabitable greater than that created by the Chernobyl accident. A year later the National Academy of Sciences confirmed our findings and warned that “…partially or completely a spent fuel pool could lead to a propagating zirconium cladding fire and release large quantities of radioactive materials to the environment. … Such fires would create thermal plumes that could potentially transport radioactive aerosols hundreds of miles downwind under appropriate atmospheric conditions.”

KEVIN KAMPS, kevin at
Kamps is radioactive waste specialist at Beyond Nuclear.

LLOYD J. DUMAS,  ljdumas at
Dumas is author of the book The Technology Trap and professor of political economy and public policy at the University of Texas at Dallas. He said today: “When the 5.9 earthquake struck the East Coast today (the strongest quake to hit the area in more than 100 years), it took out the off-site supply of power to the North Anna nuclear power station only eleven miles from the quakes’ epicenter. Two nuclear reactors went off-line as a precaution, while the plant’s emergency diesel generators were put into action to keep the critical cooling systems operating. It was precisely the loss of off-site power to the Fukushima-Daichi nuclear power plant in Japan last March (as the result of a much stronger earthquake accompanied by a devastating tsunami) that set in motion a series of events which led to the radioactive contamination of an extensive area of the Japanese countryside.

“There was no accompanying tsunami to further disable the nuclear plant, as there was in Japan. But Hurricane Irene continues to intensify off the coast and is expected to make landfall within two days, most likely in North Carolina (but possibly farther north) and to track up the East Coast. Once again, nature has made very clear the foolishness of deploying technologies capable of doing enormous, long-lasting damage to people and property when the unexpected suddenly becomes reality.

“The worst kind of natural disaster to strike a field of wind power or solar power plants might cause millions of dollars worth of property damage and kill a few dozen people. But, as Fukushima has made abundantly clear, natural disasters at nuclear plants are capable of doing many billions of dollars of damage and truncating the lives of thousands or even millions of people. We must do everything we can to move as strongly as possible toward replacing dangerous technologies like nuclear power (and highly toxic industrial chemicals) with alternative technologies that are much more forgiving of both natural disaster and human error.”