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East Coast earthquake's epicenter near a nuclear plant

August 23, 2011 |  4:25 pm

Click here to see more photos from the earthquake. The magnitude 5.8 earthquake that shook the East Coast on Tuesday was centered near a nuclear power plant, raising concerns that the facility could have been damaged.

North Anna Power Station, located about 10 miles from the epicenter, is running its safety systems on backup generators after the quake knocked out the plant’s outside power source.

David McIntyre, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said the two reactors at the plant stopped generating power automatically after the quake.

PHOTOS: Earthquake hits the East Coast

Four diesel generators began backup operation immediately to support the plant’s safety system, he said. A couple hours after the quake, one of the diesel generators broke down.

“Three are still going,” McIntyre said at 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, and there is no indication of a problem at the plant or any of the other 10 plants on the East Coast.

McIntyre said the NRC was closely monitoring the situation at the plant, which is owned by Dominion Power.  An NRC resident inspector has been working with power company officials to inspect the facility and its complex systems for any cracks or other damage. So far, he said no damage had been found. 

The quake hit along a fault in the Appalachian Mountains that has seen modest seismic activity in the past.

The North Anna plant reported an “alert” after the quake struck. An alert is the second most serious of four status positions for a nuclear plant.

The other 10 plants on the East Coast are listed in the least serious stage of warning, reporting an “unusual event,” and are generating electricity and operating normally, McIntyre said. An unusual event triggers an immediate inspection for cracks, he said.

The  North Anna plant was designed to withstand a 5.9 to 6.1 quake. 

The quake came “uncomfortably close” to that maximum, said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that advocates stronger regulation of nuclear power. 

“We may be off the hook this time, but it was such a close call that we need to move quicker on reviewing all our nuclear plants,” Lyman said. 

“When you have a malfunctioning backup generator, it’s something you need to be concerned about," said Robert Alvarez, a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and a former assistant Energy secretary during the Clinton administration.  “It’s something that isn’t necessarily going to lead to any serious problem, but those kinds of things should not be happening.” 

The North Anna plant has accumulated one of the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the U.S., Alvarez said, and the plant’s spent fuel pools contain “four to five times more than their original designs intended.”

McIntyre said the NRC had “confidence” in the plant’s “dry cask” system for containing spent fuel.

“These casks are robust and strong and have an excellence performance record,” he said. 

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-- Kim Geiger and Tom Hamburger in Washington

Photo: North Anna Power Station. Credit: Reuters

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