Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The East Coast Earthquake Redux

ap_east_coast_earthquake_dc_wy_110823_wgFrom NEI’s Response Center (this goes to members and Capitol Hill, but I asked to be able to share it with you):

All 12 plants that declared unusual events in the wake of yesterday’s East Coast earthquake have exited emergency status. Dominion’s North Anna station declared an alert, as both reactors at the site shut down automatically upon the loss of off-site power, which the company reported late yesterday had been restored. North Anna remains in alert status. NEI will continue to provide updates as more information becomes available.

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Here’s your headline (from The Hill, which covers Capitol Hill) - Earthquake reignites debate over safety of nuclear power – and here’s your sample paragraph:

While there were no reports of damage at the North Anna reactors [the ones nearest the epicenter] and plant operator Dominion said the cooling systems were working properly, nuclear opponents quickly pounced on the incident Tuesday.

I’m almost absolutely sure The Hill isn’t this naïve. The web is generally uncontrollable – as it should be – but mainstream sources have been very good not to gin up fear where it is not justified. “Nuclear opponents” are always only going to have one thing to say – it’s just their nature - so using them as a go-to source has the effect of throwing the nuclear industry into a defensive stance even when there is nothing to defend.

I get the idea of creating conflict in news stories, but sheesh! Let there be something to have a conflict about first.

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I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the industry’s response to the quake. As we saw yesterday, news sources have been looking at their local nuclear plants for potential drama – and none have really found any. If North Anna switching to diesel power for a short stint is the drama you’ve got, you’ve got nothing.

None-the-less, reporters will look to the NRC, DOE, NEI, INPO and other sources to get some official or well-informed viewpoints.

I’ve made this point many times before, but it’s worth making again in this context. NEI and its sister organizations never lie. I’ve seen instances where associations did lie about events that aroused media curiosity about their industries and their names were mud. You lose trust, you lose everything – Congressional figures give you and your industry the fishy eye - and reporters and congressional staffs in particular have long, long memories.

So – no lies allowed.

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Here’s Tony Pietrangelo, NEI’s senior vice president and chief nuclear officer:

“Per procedures and training, qualified personnel at affected facilities are conducting walk-downs and visually inspecting safety-related structures and components for indications of damage that might have resulted from the earthquake. We do not have any reports of such impacts at this time.

This part’s a little dated already – the bit at the top of this post brings everything up to date. But Pietrangelo brings up a subject that is exceptionally salient:

“U.S. nuclear energy facilities have been tested repeatedly by Mother Nature this summer, with tornadoes in the Southeast and record flooding in Nebraska. They have successfully met these challenges because plant personnel are fully trained and proficient in their duties within a multi-layered protective strategy that has multiple defenses to ensure safety even in the face of extreme events.”

I’d only add that the country as a whole has been “tested repeatedly by Mother Nature” - and industry in general and, well, folks have held up pretty well. Now, on to Hurricane Irene.

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Here’s the NRC:

Nuclear power plants are built to withstand environmental hazards, including earthquakes. Even those plants that are located outside of areas with extensive seismic activity are designed for safety in the event of such a natural disaster. The NRC requires that safety-significant structures, systems, and components be designed to take into account the most severe natural phenomena historically reported for the site and surrounding area.

Plants declaring Unusual Events, which indicate a potential decrease in plant safety, include Peach Bottom, Three Mile Island, Susquehanna and Limerick in Pennsylvania; Salem,
Hope Creek and Oyster Creek in New Jersey, Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, Surry in Virginia, Shearon Harris in North Carolina and D.C. Cook and Palisades in Michigan. All these plants continue to operate while plant personnel examine their sites.

They caught up with some plants that I missed in my roundup yesterday, but they are the NRC.

The first paragraph is important: although the east does not suffer earthquakes frequently, it has suffered them historically and nuclear plants are built with the idea of taking account of the whole known history of an area. So no nuclear facility fell short of being prepared for yesterday’s earthquake. Not one.

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Finally, a curious aspect of the earthquake is that it shook up nearly the entire east coast. Much larger tremblers out west don’t send shock waves up to Washington state and down to Mexico, so why was this one so widely felt?

Ars Technica provides a short explanation. We won’t steal the whole thing, but this is the gist of it:

On the East Coast, the continental crust is older, colder, and denser. The coastline hasn't been tectonically active since Pangaea split apart, back when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

“Older, colder and denser.” We think our western friends can have quite a lot of fun with that description of the east – and I don’t mean tectonically, either. Read the rest at the site.

The last time everyone in downtown Washington, D.C. left their buildings was during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The feeling then was intense fear. Yesterday, the mood was bemusement and bafflement while everyone waited (for about 30 minutes) for the cell towers to work again so loved ones could be reassured and checked. This shot was taken on Pennsylvania Ave. fairly close to NEI.

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