The story of Dominion’s Lake Anna nuclear plant is now an international one, with media outlets around the world writing about the apparent narrow escape that we made from serious trouble as a result of today’s earthquake. (For example, here’s a Reuters piece.) The quake turns out to have been the biggest one in Virginia in at least a century, and the biggest one to hit the east coast in 67 years, since a 5.9 in New York during WWII. That apparently lulled regulators into figuring that big quakes are uncommon enough that they’re not worth worrying about when building a nuclear power plant, since Dominion spokesman Jim Norvelle said in March that the plant was designed to withstand a magnitude 5.9–6.1 earthquake. We had a 5.8. In today’s Reuters article, Dominion is already upping that number, with Norvelle now saying that “the plant was designed to withstand an earthquake of up to 6.2 in magnitude.” An MIT engineering professor is quoted as saying that “the size of the vibrations from this East Coast earthquake are probably less than you would feel in a loud nightclub”—obviously this man has either never been in a 5.8 earthquake or he’s never been in a nightclub—by way of defending the structural integrity of nuclear power plants, but it’s Dominion who’s saying that this earthquake was just barely within the design limits of their plant, and it’s hard to imagine why they’d make up a story like that.
For some perspective, here’s the location of the epicenter of the initial quake relative to the location of the nuclear power plant:
Complicating things, there are interest groups on both sides. The energy industry is sure to want to present this as no problem whatsoever. (Recall the Tokyo Electric Power Company insisting this spring that everything was A-OK with the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, even as it was clear to everybody that it had melted down fully and become extremely dangerous.) Some environmental groups are sure to want to present this as being a clear danger, a canary in the coal mine, and that an earthquake at any moment could send a cloud of deadly radiation across central Virginia. In the middle of this all of us who actually live here, caught between competing narratives. Keep some potassium iodide on hand—always a good idea when living near a nuclear power plant—and try to take all of this with a grain of salt.