Thursday, August 25, 2011

Another Nuclear Freakout

Kate Sheppard writes another “Omigod we almost all died in a nuclear meltdown” story in the Guardian as a result of the East Coast earthquake. What actually happened is that the reactor closest to the earthquake shut down as a result of the quake, the diesel generators kicked in as designed and cooled the reactors, and the reactor in due course came back online. A dozen or so other reactors nearby were inspected by the NRC to be on the safe side, and were found to be okay.

Not exactly within a hairsbreadth of a doomsday scenario.

Tuesday's earthquake was the worst on the east coast of the US since 1944, measuring at 5.8 on the Richter scale. And while we certainly avoided the kind of crisis that Japan has endured, two nuclear reactors near the site, at the North Anna nuclear power plant, were shut down following the quake. The plant temporarily lost power and halted operations until it switched to back-up generators. Twelve other plants around the country were put on alert following the quake.

Though a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told reporters that "as far as we know, everything is safe", the event revived fears about the safety of US nuclear plants. Most of the region's reactors were reportedly designed to withstand a 5.9 to 6.1 magnitude quake – which means Tuesday's quake was, for many, too close for comfort.

Kate stresses that “two nuclear reactors” were shut down, even though they were at a single site and then she is careful to include the infamous “as far as we know” when quoting the inspector saying that everything is okay. What doesn’t he know? There may be hidden damage that is already killing millions and he just doesn’t know about it yet. I suspect that Kate Sheppard hopes so because she needs a better story than she has.

As for the twelve other plants that were “put on alert” well, yes, they were checked as a routine precaution but operation was continued as normal.

The North Anna plant is located about 15 miles from the epicenter of the quake in Mineral, Virginia. It was designed to withstand a 6.2-magnitude quake, according to its owner, Dominion Resources. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission lists the plant as one of the 10 US plants most at risk of damage in a seismic event. So, it seems like we got lucky in this case.

I’m not sure one should call it luck. You design a plant to withstand a certain size earthquake and the biggest quake to hit in 67 years, at magnitude 5.8, is half the size that you based the design upon, and you call that luck? I call it pretty good design work. And if this is one of the riskiest plants in the US then I’d say we are doing pretty well.

She goes on to say that, “We need to seriously consider the potential for a combination of events like those in Japan earlier this year,” apparently unaware that tsunamis are seriously unlikely in the mountainous interior of Virginia and New York, and then has a mild case of the vapors about evacuation plans after having (inadvertently) illustrated that no such things are actually likely to be used.

As a scare story it manages to be a fairly successful comedy.

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