By Peter Galuszka
A year ago tomorrow, Dominion Virginia Power operators watched dozens of brightly-lit boxes strung across several walls in their control rooms for two nuclear reactors at the North Anna Power station about 50 miles northwest of Richmond.
It had been a sleepy, sunny afternoon. Suddenly, at 1:51 p.m., delicate sensors noticed that uranium-filled fuel rods inside the reactors had moved slightly out of alignment. Within 100 milliseconds, control rods slipped immediately into place between the fuel rods, shutting down fission. The human operators were about 1.8 seconds behind, confirming the reactors’ “scram” as boxes flashed, lights in the room dimmed and a wild emergency chirping warning blared.
It was the first time ever in this country that a nuclear power station had gone through an emergency shutdown because of an earthquake. In this case it was a rare 5.8 magnitude seismic event with an epicenter a few miles away that ruined Louisa County school buildings, cracked the Washington Monument and shook the North Anna beyond what it was designed to deal with. The company’s response “was handled very professionally,” says Dan Stoppard, senior vice president for nuclear operations at Dominion who took reporters on a recent tour of the plant.
North Anna was shut down for three months although it was not seriously damaged. However, the overall impact for the U.S. nuclear energy industry was enormous.
Federal regulators immediately ordered Dominion and operators of more than 25 other nuclear power stations to review their ability to withstand earthquakes. The order took on urgency because just five months before, a tidal wave caused by a massive earthquake swamped the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan, causing the worst nuclear power accident since Chernobyl in 1986.
Both earthquakes last year shook off a renewed veneer of acceptability that global nuclear power had seemed to acquire. Until Fukushima, nuclear power had been getting a favorable look because it is not as dirty a source of power as large, coal-burning plants accused of contributing to climate change. The National Resources Defense Council reports that 20 U.S. states cause 92 percent of the nation’s air pollution. The biggest offenders are coal-heavy states such as Kentucky and Ohio. Virginia is No. 12 on the list.
Currently, utilities are seeking licenses for 30 new nuclear power stations in the U.S., say officials from Dominion which has applied for a license for a third unit at North Anna. The Southern Company has been awarded a license to build two nuclear units at its Vogtle plant in Georgia and Scana has the OK to build two reactors at its Virgil C. Summer plant in South Carolina. Most of the 104 nuclear power plants in the U.S. are 30 to 40 years old, however, and replacement is sluggish at best.
The North Anna event a year ago prompted a nationwide upgrade of earthquake precautions. The Aug. 23 incident showed some potential shortfalls at the Virginia plant. During the quake, not only did the plant shut down but area electricity was knocked out. The power plant needs electricity to keep critical controls and machinery running to prevent a nuclear accident. It has four large diesel generators plus a backup to ensure this. But just after the reactor shutdown, a coolant leak knocked one of the diesels out of service.
Dominion officials said the plant needs only two to operate and had enough on hand but the malfunction was of concern. Incidents such as this plus Dominion’s response and upgrades have made utility officials popular speakers on the global nuclear conference circuit. Dominion engineers, for instance, will be lecturing at an industry event in Taiwan this week. To train its employees, the utility has made a computerized recreation of the earthquake at its control room simulator near the reactors.
The cloud over nuclear power remains, however. Dominion officials still won’t say if they will go ahead with a third unit at North Anna. They applied for a license in 2003 and are doing some site preparation but won’t decide until 2015 whether to build it. The utility has selected a reactor design from Mitsubishi.
One unanswered question is how easily Dominion and other nuclear contenders will pay for the new nuclear plants whose price tags have been soaring. The Scana project will cost $10.2 billion and the Southern Company expansion will run $14 billion. The total of four reactors for these utilities will be get some kind of federal loan guarantees – something Dominion says it doesn’t need and would be hard to obtain during these times of budget cutting.
The biggest impediment may be competing fuels. Thanks to controversial hydraulic fracking methods of drilling, the energy market is awash in cheap natural gas. Coal is being pushed aside by this cleaner form of energy. Henrico County-based Old Dominion Electric Cooperative has shelved plans for a 1,500 megawatt coal-fired plant in Surry County.
ODEC officials blame new carbon dioxide emissions rules but an equally important reason could be that coal is pushed back by gas. Those dynamics could also affect North Anna’s third nuclear reactor which could cost around $10 billion, although Dominion won’t give an estimated price tag just yet. Nuclear power’s revival might take more time to debut, if at all.
Parts of this posting were first published in Style Weekly.