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Nuclear Plants Plan for Worst

July 15th, 2011

FREDERICKSBURG, VA (The Free Lance-Star) – North Anna Power Station, and other U.S. nuclear plants in earthquake zones, are getting more guidance from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the wake of Japan’s Fukushima disaster.

The NRC’s Japan Task Force, set up to analyze what went wrong there and implications for U.S. plants, released its initial report yesterday.

The federal panel proposed improvements for issues such as loss of power, earthquakes and flooding, and areas such as spent-fuel pools, reactor venting and preparedness, and said a “patchwork of regulatory requirements” developed over decades should be overhauled.

The North Anna plant, on Lake Anna near Mineral in Louisa County, sits along an earthquake fault. Dominion power, which owns the plant, says it was designed to withstand any quake known to have occurred in the seismic zone. The biggest earthquake ever recorded in Virginia was a 5.9 magnitude event in Giles County in Southwest Virginia in 1897.

Still, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, which opposes Dominion’s plan for a third reactor at North Anna, argues that the site is unsuitable for reactors because of its location.

Richard Zuercher, spokesman for Dominion’s nuclear operations, said yesterday that the company “just received the [task force] report, and we’re in the process of reviewing it in great detail. Many of the items we’ve addressed already, and we’re conducting a full evaluation.”

Shortly after a March 11 earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima plant on Japan’s northern coast, Zuercher said, Dominion “put together a team of employees” to evaluate the effects of events beyond what the plant was designed to withstand.

The Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 also focused attention on safety and security at the nation’s nuclear plants. Operator errors and equipment failure led to a partial meltdown at TMI’s Unit 2 reactor.

“A number of things implemented at nuclear stations came out of the [TMI] incident. One was hardened vents to protect against the buildup of hydrogen,” Zuercher said. Hydrogen explosions damaged several of the reactor buildings at Fukushima.

David Heacock, Dominion’s chief nuclear officer, was recently appointed to an industry panel coordinating the ongoing response to the Fukushima disaster.

While declaring that a sequence of events like the Fukushima accident “is unlikely to occur in the United States” and that plants can be operated safely, the task force said an accident involving core damage and uncontrolled release of radioactivity to the environment, even one without significant health consequences, “is inherently unacceptable.”

The task force examined four broad areas: ensuring protection; enhancing accident mitigation; beefing up emergency preparedness; and improving the efficiency of NRC programs.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an industry watchdog group, released its own report yesterday on safety and security at the nation’s nuclear power plants.

David Lochbaum, director of UCS’s nuclear safety project, said a Fukushima-like crisis could happen at any one of the 104 commercial nuclear reactors in the United States.

“Japan’s reactor designs are similar, their protective barriers are similar, and their regulations are, in some cases, even stronger.”

Among other things, the UCS called on the NRC to extend the scope of its regulations to include severe, or extreme, low-probability accidents; strengthen emergency planning requirements; and require plant owners to transfer highly radioactive spent fuel from storage pools to less vulnerable dry casks. North Anna has been storing its spent fuel in dry casks for years.

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By Rusty Dennen

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