North Anna quake safety questioned

As Dominion Energy pushes to extend North Anna Power Station’s lifespan for another 20 years, critics are calling for a more thorough study of how the plant can withstand a future earthquake.

Beyond Nuclear, the Sierra Club and Alliance for a Progressive Virginia are seeking a formal hearing before an Atomic Safety and Licensing Board panel. They say that since a third reactor at North Anna would meet a new, higher standard for withstanding an earthquake, an upgrade may also be warranted for the two existing units.

North Anna Units 1 and 2 were licensed by the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1978 and 1980 for 40-year terms. In 2003, the agency granted 20-year extensions to 2038 and 2040. Dominion’s current request is to continue operating at least until 2058 and 2060.

“North Anna produces 21 percent of the electricity in Virginia,” said John Cruickshank, a member of the Sierra Club’s Piedmont chapter. “We know it’s not going to shut down any time soon. The question is, can it run safely for 80 years?”

During an appeal for a hearing before the panel on Feb. 4, NRC staff said that North Anna responded to the 2011 nuclear plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan by implementing mitigation strategies, such as installing diesel generators “to maintain or restore core cooling containment and spent fuel pool cooling capabilities.” The staff added that a risk assessment was conducted at North Anna after an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale struck the Mineral area in August 2011. 

“Dominion and the NRC staff both concluded that no further action is required at North Anna Units 1 and 2,” said Anita Ghosh-Naber, an NRC attorney. She said operating safety is an ongoing concern for nuclear plants and should not be confused with the process for renewing a plant’s license.

Cruickshank said only one other nuclear facility in the United States has received a second 20-year extension from the NRC, and that plant is not in a known fault zone.

“The last environmental impact study was in 1996 or so, when they applied for the first extension. That work did not take into account what occurred in 2011,” he said. 

The strength of the Mineral earthquake exceeded what the plant was designed for. But “[it] did not require any change to the design basis. It is still fully adequate,” said Ryan Lightner, a Dominion attorney.

Beyond the earthquake concerns, the plant’s pipes and other components may weaken over time, Cruickshank said, urging the NRC to lab-test selected equipment from the facility.

But there are no technical issues that would prevent a well-maintained nuclear power plant from operating safely during a second license renewal period, Fred Mladen, Dominion’s site vice-president at North Anna, said during a license hearing in November.

Other critics say nuclear power is increasingly cost-prohibitive compared to other energy sources such as natural gas and renewables such as solar and wind. In its 2020 integrated resource plan, which sets out how the company will meet energy demands, Dominion said it has “paused material development activities for North Anna [Unit] 3.” The company received an NRC license for the third unit in 2017.

Jerry Rosenthal, a former Louisa County resident and longtime critic of nuclear power, said he interprets Dominion’s use of the word “paused” to mean the company has abandoned its plans to build Unit 3. Officials with the state attorney general’s office and state corporation commission said in recent years they were skeptical that building the third unit made economic sense.

The Atomic Safety and Licensing Board panel members are independent of the NRC, which licenses reactors, although their decisions are subject to the commission’s review.

If the panel grants a hearing, the petitioners intend to call Dave Lochbaum as a witness. He is a former nuclear safety project director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit watchdog group.

Louisa County officials are counting on the nuclear plant continuing to operate for many years to come.

“The revenues generated by North Anna Power Station accounted for over 10 percent of our county’s operating and capital budget [in a recent year],” Andy Wade, the county’s economic development director, said during the November hearing. “Dominion is one of our largest employers in the county … [and] they pay the largest average annual salary of any employer.”

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