NBC12 Investigates: North Anna evacuation zones

LOUISA, VA (WWBT) - The Louisa earthquake raised a lot of concerns about the safety of the North Anna nuclear plant and the more than 80 aftershocks keep the questions going.

Anchored along a scenic manmade lake, North Anna now has a dubious distinction. It is the only US nuclear plant, ever, to be knocked off line by an earthquake.

"Yes, it was a surprise," said Victor McCree with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC is the federal agency, based in the Maryland suburbs of DC that oversees power plants. McCree is in charge of 33 nuclear reactors in the southeast, including Dominion's two at North Anna.

"There was no significant damage to any parts of the plant and that was verified by both Dominion and independently by the NRC," adds McCree. He says the damage at North Anna was purely cosmetic. There was some cracking here and shifting there, not to mention a loss of power, but the generators kicked in. Dominion says it spent $21 million inspecting the reactors after the quake. McCree ultimately helped make the decision to turn North Anna back on.

"The operators at North Anna responded appropriately to this event. The plant responded as designed," he explained. "It shutdown, it put itself in a safe condition."

The 5.8 magnitude quake shook the ground about twice the level North Anna was designed to handle. The NRC now recognizes that North Anna's risk of catastrophic failure from an earthquake is slightly higher than first thought.

"I think we need to be more vigilant," said Paul Gunter, who runs "Beyond Nuclear," a group that has long been critical of nuclear power. He's believes the reactors were started up too quickly. "We don't have any confidence in the agency or the power company that their accurately assessing the cumulative impact of all these aftershocks, where small cracks might be growing right now."

If the worst did happen and there was a meltdown at North Anna power companies currently drill for a 10 mile evacuation area around power plants. However, during the nuclear crisis last year in Japan, the NRC recommended that Americans within 50 miles of that plant evacuate.

50 miles from North Anna covers all of I-64 just west of Charlottesville, all of Fredericksburg to the tip of Maryland, Ashland, Short Pump, and even downtown Richmond.

"There should be a major re-evaluation. A real rational look at can we evacuate city's like Richmond and Fredericksburg," says Gunter.

The NRC still maintain 10 mile zones are enough and points out what happened in Japan took days to play out. "There's time to make those decisions and there's time to move people for that type of evacuation. If necessary to occur," adds McCree.

And it's not just North Anna. The risk for earthquakes causing core damage are higher at several plants on the east coast.

"We concluded the current operating plants were still safe to operate. It doesn't cause us any greater concern because we're already aware of the hazards in those areas," says McCree.

Questions have surrounded North Anna's location since it was built. A 1977 letter from the Justice Department says the owners of North Anna, and ultimately the NRC, knew that the reactors were built "directly on top of a geological fault," but construction was completed anyway.

In fact VEPCO, or Virginia Electric and Power Company before it became Dominion, was convicted of making 12 false statements to the NRC and was fined $60,000. At the time, the penalty was the maximum allowed under the law.

The NRC argues to this day, the fault under North Anna is not active.

"If they want to split hairs about this fault or that fault, that's their fault! It's not our fault if there isn't another accident caused by an earthquake. The warning is clear!" says Gunter.

Dominion filed years ago to build reactor 3 at North Anna. That request is still before the NRC and, even if granted, we are years, if not a decade away from construction if Dominion decides to build.

In response to our story Dominion referred us to their Nuclear Emergency Preparedness information.

They also provided this statement:

"This information is part of emergency planning efforts developed by Dominion Virginia Power, the Commonwealth of Virginia Department of Emergency Management, and the counties and cities near North Anna and Surry Power Stations, and is required by federal law.

Each state and community located within 10 miles of a U.S. nuclear power station have emergency response plans that provide guidelines to ensure effective direction and control in a nuclear emergency. The plans include procedures for warning the public and for taking protective actions, such as sheltering or evacuation, in the event of a nuclear emergency.

Dominion Virginia Power and the state practice its emergency drills each year to ensure that the company, VDEM and its employees in the emergency response organization know what their duties are and are proficient in them.

- Jim Norvelle

Director-Media Relations

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