Nuclear Power Plants Withstand Virginia Earthquake

Published September 26, 2011

All thirteen nuclear power plants in locations near the epicenter of the Aug. 23 central Virginia earthquake safely withstood the strong tremors. 

Operators temporarily shut down only one nuclear power plant in response to the 5.8 magnitude earthquake. Dominion Power shut down its North Anna reactors, located approximately 11 miles from the epicenter of the quake, for precautionary reasons in response to local power failures. There was no damage to the safety systems at the North Anna site or any other nuclear power plant sites, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). 

Strongest in 100 Years 

“The Virginia earthquake was the strongest in 100 years. The good news is that this 1-in-a-100-year event did no damage to the North Anna Power Station, even though the plant is less than 15 miles from the epicenter. This speaks well to the emergency preparedness of our nuclear power plants,” said Daniel Simmons, director of state and regulatory affairs at the Institute for Energy Research.

The North Anna plant was “hardened” against earthquakes and other potential hazards in the 1990s. As a result of the improvements, analysts reported the plant could successfully withstand an earthquake much larger than the one recorded in Central Virginia without significant damage to safety systems.  

No Serious Damage

Dominion spokesperson Jim Norvelle said the damage incurred was insulation shaken off some pipes, some broken electrical bushings, and a few cracks in the walls of either commercial buildings (such as the station’s administration building) or non-load-bearing walls. 

“The only damage that we have found is minor,” Norvelle said.

The two North Anna reactors shut down automatically when the earthquake occurred. 

“All safety systems responded to the loss of offsite power as designed and built. Four emergency diesel generators started automatically to power the safety systems,” Norvelle said. 

Safety Emphasized in U.S. Plants

The NRC has been reviewing seismic risks to several U.S. nuclear power plants. The commission ordered the review following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in Japan that affected the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. 

Simmons says it is wise to evaluate energy safety constantly, but he notes nuclear power has been extremely safe and environmentally friendly under heavy regulation in the United States.

“Affordable energy is critical to getting the economy back on track,” Simmons explained. “As we consider the important lessons, we need to be careful to not overreact and needlessly drive up electricity prices in the process.” 

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.