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By Candice Bernd
August 29, 2011
Caption : After Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi disaster, how reliable are power plant safeguards in the U.S.?     

It was a week of bizarre natural disasters for the East Coast—a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rattled Washington, DC, and New York City early in the week and Hurricane Irene lashed at the entire Eastern Seaboard over the weekend.

But the natural disasters, uncommon for the northeastern area of the United States, renewed concerns about the nuclear industry—an easy target for anti-nuclear and environmental groups in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi catastrophe in Japan.

“The Fukushima meltdown was a long-distance warning to the U.S. nuclear industry to bolster its safety systems,” Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) wrote in a letter [PDF] to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The Virginia earthquake is now our local 911 call to stop delaying the implementation of stricter safety standards.”

The quake’s epicenter was in Mineral, a small Virginia town north of Richmond, and it resulted in one of the strongest earthquakes to strike the East Coast in decades.

Reactors at a nearby nuclear power plant, North Anna, shut down automatically after the first few minutes of the quake. The plant, located just 10 miles away from the epicenter, was placed on alert after one of its back-up generators failed to work. Nationwide, a dozen other nuclear plants felt the earthquake’s tremors on Tuesday.

Two of the plants—designed three decades ago to withstand quakes up to 5.9 and 6.1 magnitudes—were shut down. Another declared an emergency classification of “Unusual Event” due to debris.

As Hurricane Irene swept along the East Coast, another dozen nuclear plants prepped for high winds and storm surges. American nuclear reactors appear to be, for the most part, unscathed after both the earthquake and hurricane.

But as ocean waters continue to warm, fueling the hurricanes that form over them, America will likely see longer and more severe hurricane seasons in the future, environmentalist Bill McKibben wrote in The Daily Beast.

(McKibben is also leading the two week-long ‘Tar Sands’ protest of the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House this week.)

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been re-evaluating nuclear plants on the East Coast since before the Fukushima disaster based on an assessment from the U.S. Geological Survey, according to the New York Times.

The commission praised officials at the North Anna plant for its emergency safeguards. But a smooth shutdown at North Anna doesn’t necessarily mean it could handle a quake of any higher magnitude.

For one, the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League doesn’t think it could. The group has filed a lawsuit against Dominion Power, the company that runs North Anna, in an effort to stop the company from building a third plant in the area.

“There is a breaking point for every kind of man made device,” says Lou Zeller, an administrator and clean air coordinator with Blue Ridge.

The North Anna site is also built on a river and reservoir created by a dam, which Zeller says could be impacted significantly by floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

“An earthquake thousands of miles away can raise the water levels in a lake, a river or a reservoir,” he says. “Why do we build something in a place with even the possibility of things going so wrong that it leaves a radio-active landmark that will last for thousands of years?”

The group joins many other environmental and anti-nuclear organizations in the fight to halt construction on new plants.

But it’s not just environmental groups that are up-in-arms since Fukushima and the Virginia quake—nuclear engineers have been joining in pressuring federal regulators to deny a new reactor design called the Westinghouse AP1000, planned for 14 locations across the U.S.

Three of the construction sites for the AP1000 are in the Carolinas and one is planned for Georgia, areas that felt the ground shake during last week’s quake. The Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League is also trying to block the Georgia plant from being built.

Those familiar with the nuclear industry have also spoken out against the design. Arnie Gunderson, a former nuclear industry official, penned a report questioning the safety of the design, and John Ma, a staff nuclear engineer working on the AP1000 project, filed a dissent in November to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission saying that a natural disaster could shatter the walls of the reactor.

And in the past week, other elected officials have called for increased scrutiny of nuclear safety practices in America, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in the Huffington Post. And Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), when asked about the Nuclear Regulation Commission, told the Los Angeles Times: “I question their dedication to safety.”

With heightened concern over nuclear safety in the months since Fukushima, it’s unsettling that nuclear reactors are still operating in southern California, along one of the most active fault lines in the world. And it’s troubling that the most recent design for roughly half of the 28 reactors planned for construction in the U.S. is being pushed through despite dissent from the inside.

An industry that creates tons of radioactive waste every year—and carries the burden and risk of colossal meltdowns—doesn’t seem worth it when compared to the potential of wind, tidal, geothermal and solar energy options.

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