THE EARTHQUAKE that rattled the Northeast last month may have done little damage. But it has underscored a frightening lack of preparedness at the region’s nuclear power plants, which should push regulators to move swiftly to implement stronger safety measures.
The quake, measuring a modest 5.8 on the Richter scale, nonetheless produced ground motions with enough force to exceeded the “design basis’’ of the North Anna plant near Richmond, Va. - the first time that’s ever happened at an American nuclear facility. The plant is now closed for safety inspections.
Nobody was hurt at North Anna, there was no radioactive discharge, and the plant’s owners maintain that the facility can resume operation. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is right to take its time before letting the plant reopen. The fact that the facility was not designed to withstand a quake that size undercuts the nuclear industry’s insistence that it has anticipated every worst-case scenario.
Indeed, the problem can’t come as a complete surprise. The two reactors at North Anna are among the 27 in the eastern and central United States that, according to a preliminary NRC review launched well before the quake, may face seismic risks they weren’t built for.
The list was compiled as part of a study that has dragged on for years over whether to tighten earthquake readiness standards for older nuclear reactors. Rules for new reactors were changed beginning in the 1990s, when computer advances provided more accurate earthquake modeling. A 2008 study showed that with the improved models, the earthquake risk at many plants in the northeast and central US was higher than once believed. But the NRC has spent years fretting over whether to require upgrades - which could include things like better protections from floods and fire that could result from a natural disaster - at those existing plants. There’s no need for more delay; the agency should move now to require the same safety standards at all plants.
The incident at North Anna comes in the shadow of the far more serious disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, which experienced meltdowns at three reactors after March’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan. In response, an NRC task force recommended 12 steps to improve natural disaster preparedness at American nuclear plants. Those recommendations are now working their way through the bureaucracy, amid fears they will be delayed or watered down as the post-Fukushima attention on nuclear power wanes. The NRC commissioners should move swiftly to embrace them - especially the recommendation that reactors be required to have more backup power on-site to cool spent fuel and the reactor core in case of disaster.
As nuclear industry supporters have pointed out, a tsunami isn’t likely to strike the Northeast. But then, neither was an earthquake. Natural disasters can happen where least expected, and nuclear facilities have to be ready for them.