Dominion Resources Inc. says the nuclear plant shaken by an earthquake in Virginia last month is just about ready to resume operations. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s response: Not so fast.
Dominion expects to have one of its two North Anna reactors shut down during the temblor set to start generating electricity by the end of this month, pending regulatory approval, spokesman Richard Zuercher said yesterday in an interview.
“The NRC will take the appropriate amount of time necessary to be satisfied” that resuming operations doesn’t endanger public health and safety, agency spokesman Scott Burnell said in an e-mail.
Regulators are using the 33-year-old Dominion plant as a model to re-evaluate earthquake risks because seismic hazards for some nuclear plants in the eastern and central U.S. may be greater than anticipated, Bloomberg Government reported. Of the 104 commercial U.S. reactors, only eight are located west of the Rocky Mountains, where quake hazards are better known, and 52 are at least 30 years old.
“North Anna certainly represents the first ‘real-world’ experience in comparing the earlier seismic analyses with what can be accomplished with today’s methods,” Burnell said yesterday. Larry Lane, Dominion’s site vice president for the Virginia plant, told reporters on a Sept. 2 tour that “North Anna is the test case.”
While the NRC began its earthquake survey in 2005, it didn’t gather public attention until after the March disaster at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant in Japan, caused by an earthquake and tsunami.
Tests by Dominion
Dominion, owner of Virginia’s largest electric utility, filed on Sept. 17 for permission to start the North Anna reactors as soon as the company completes a list of tests and examinations.
The NRC staff will discuss its inspectors’ preliminary findings during a public meeting on Oct. 3 at the plant, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of Dominion’s Richmond headquarters. A final report should be released by the end of October, although North Anna’s restart isn’t tied to the report, Burnell said.
The 5.8-magnitude temblor on Aug. 23, Virginia’s worst in more than a century, exceeded the plant’s design limits, Dominion officials have said. North Anna’s twin reactors, which together can power about 450,000 homes, have been shut since the quake struck about 11 miles from the plant.
“The NRC has to review all of the actions that we have taken,” Jim Norvelle, a Dominion spokesman, said in an e-mail. The agency this week is auditing information the company provided in its inspections at the plant, he said.
The earthquake caused no significant damage at North Anna, Dominion has said. A transformer was damaged and cosmetic cracks opened in non-safety related structures, according to the utility. Steel containers of nuclear waste that weigh more than 100 tons shifted as much as 4.5 inches.
“If North Anna says they’re going to be ready by the end of this month, I would hope that the NRC would be ready by the end of next month,” Dale Klein, a former commission chairman who is associate vice chancellor for research at the University of Texas System in Austin, said in a telephone interview.
By the end of the year, the agency plans to develop an earthquake probability model for reactor owners to use, Burnell said in an interview. The NRC will require all U.S. plants to review seismic risks within the next two years, he said. The NRC may determine whether “there is a need to take additional action,” the agency said in a Sept. 1 Federal Register notice.
The schedule for the work is “not realistic,” Tony Pietrangelo, the Nuclear Energy Institute’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer, said today at a meeting with NRC staff. “It is going to take longer than the one to two years” to obtain new seismic information, analyze it and determine whether changes need to be made, he said.
Dominion may receive a license to add a third reactor by 2013, and the NRC has evaluated that proposal under more modern earthquake predictions.
“If you use the updated seismic analysis, a new plant there would be perfectly fine,” NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko said in a Sept. 7 interview. “What do we do with those plants that are out there, and how do we get them to the same standard?”
An NRC task force set up after the Fukushima crisis to study U.S. reactor safety proposed in July that plant owners review earthquake and flooding risks every 10 years and upgrade as needed. Jaczko supports the every-decade review.
Reactor owners favor reviewing seismic information “as it emerges” rather than on a set schedule, the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute industry group, said in comments sent to the NRC on Sept. 2.
The NRC identified 27 reactors in the central and eastern U.S., including North Anna, that may have a greater-than- expected seismic risk. Among them are Entergy Corp. (ETR)’s Indian Point, about 24 miles north of New York City; Duke Energy Corp. (DUK)’s Oconee close to Greenville, South Carolina; and Exelon Corp. (EXC)’s Dresden near Joliet, Illinois.
Indian Point is close to the intersection of two seismic zones where a 7-magnitude earthquake is possible, identified in 2008 by scientists at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
The reactors are designed to withstand a 6.5-magnitude earthquake, and company engineers think it can handle 7.0 or greater, Jerry Nappi, a spokesman for the plant, said in an interview. Indian Point’s seismic monitoring instruments were replaced last year, he said.
After the Virginia quake, Dominion installed “free-field” monitors to get a better reading of future seismic activity. The 1970s-era instruments inside the plant were “probably not accurate within 10 percent” and possibly as much as 20 percent, William Leith, earthquake hazards program coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey, said at an NRC meeting Sept. 14.
“Utilities across the nation will be watching” what the NRC requires of Dominion following the Virginia temblor, Sam Blakeslee, a California state legislator who has called for more stringent seismic reviews of PG&E Corp. (PCG)’s Diablo Canyon plant in his district. “If the NRC loses its nerve now, it’s unlikely that the utilities will prioritize their seismic, flooding and fire analyses” more than they have done previously, he said.
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