Did We Dodge a Bullet with Lake Anna?

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.

19 thoughts on “Did We Dodge a Bullet with Lake Anna?”

  1. “Friend of a friend who works at Lake Anna” story is that some of the reactors were voluntarily shut down, but one of them failed. At this point, I’ll call it an unsubstantiated rumor, but would be interested to see if anybody else knows anything about this, and, if it’s true, what that means.

  2. NO! We did NOT “Dodge a Bullet”.

    Everything worked as it should, safety systems shut down the reactor, backup generators came on line. Plant was checked for safety and is being restarted.
    They will continue an extra vigilant set of safety checks as the reactors are brought back to full power, and continue with extra precautions for the next several weeks.

    Stop trying to start a panic, Waldo.

  3. I think saying that we dodged a bullet is a bit extreme and sensationalistic. The two plants shut down when offsite power was lost, and this is what they’re designed to do.

    Claims that a facility is designed to survive an earthquake of a given magnitude are nearly meaningless. One 6.0 is not equivalent to another 6.0, as anyone with more than a passing knowledge of earthquakes knows. The direction, amplitude, and shape of waves generated by earthquakes vary greatly. What stands up to heavy vertical shaking might not survive the same magnitude of horizontal movement.

    I remember the news stories that circulated when the plants were being built, pointing out the geological fault running directly through the site. VEPCO (as Dominion was called then) brought in seismologists who assured us (read: guessed) that the fault would remain inactive and could not produce large earthquakes. We now know how accurate that assessment was. If we did, by some stretch, dodge a bullet, it was fired from a gun we allowed to be pointed at us for decades.

  4. I read mixed reports yesterday that one of the diesel generators failed. Does anyone with ties to plant know if this is true?

  5. Stop trying to start a panic, Waldo.

    ??? Yeah, you know me—always starting panics. :) Give the linked article a read. Then read what I wrote. You’ll see that I’m trying to do the opposite of that.

    “take all of this with a grain of salt”

    Thank you, thank you! I’ll be here for years to come.

  6. If the reports from Lake Anna continue to be good (no real damage) then it did as designed. If we get these events every 100 years it’s instructive but not alarming.

    Seems to be that an earthen dam would be much better than a concrete dam in terms of this kind of event.But considering newer concrete techinques that is really just a guess on my part. I just like the idea of a big mountain of clay instead of a more rigid concrete wall holding back all that water

  7. “Designed to withstand 6.1” doesn’t mean the whole thing suddenly falls down or explodes with a 6.2. Rather, it means that above this level the inherent (relatively large but unquantified) safety/seismic design margin built into the plant begins to erode, and that at some point well above this figure the margin effectively runs out and minor damage may start to occur.

    Note also that a part of the evaluation criteria involve the occurrence of events completely external to the plant, such as the long-term loss of off-site electrical power.

  8. Just remember the flood control for the new earthen dam is a concrete spillway not attached to the new dam itself –so once the earhtquake hits all bets are off …….swim to the nearest mountain is my advice

  9. Perhaps the bigger story is all the people in Louisa whose insurance Cos won’t be covering their losses because its not standard in policies?

  10. I live at Lake Anna; a reliable friend who works for Homeland Security knows someone working at the plant. Everything was not as smooth as reported to the residents and media. He gave no specific details, but something did NOT go as planned.

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