How Virginia's Nuclear Reactors Endured the Quake

A Virginia plant is taken offline as diesel generators kick into gear

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Following the 5.9 magnitude earthquake in Virginia this afternoon, two nuclear reactors were automatically taken offline, while twelve additional plants declared an "unusual event" according to officials from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Tuesday. The plant that houses the two nuclear reactors, the North Anna Power Station in Virginia,  lost offsite power, which triggered four diesel generators to maintain its cooling operations. Adding to difficulties, one of the four diesel generators failed, NRC public affairs officer Joey Ledford tells The Atlantic Wire. So how are these plants designed to overcome an earthquake and what's the status of each one? Here's the latest on how the quake affected the country's nuclear power plants

Is everything okay? "As far as we know, everything is safe," said Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman David McIntyre. Ledford said teams are on site to assess any potential damage and will report back. He said one of the diesel generators had failed because of a coolant leak but that the other three generators could keep the reactor cool indefinitely and there was no major emergency. Besides the failed diesel engine, Ledford said "everything is operating as you would expect after an earthquake of this magnitude. There are no problems with the plant's major safety systems."

Was Virginia prepared for this type of quake? According to local news station WDBJ7, the 5.9 magnitude quake was the largest quake to hit the state since 1897. The last recorded quake in the area was in July of last year in Gaithersburg Maryland registering at a 3.6 magnitude. Despite this quake being significantly larger, Ledford says the plants were prepared. "There's a history of seismic activity in the area and everything is operating as you would expect." In a sign that the state could be more prepare, ABC News notes that "Seismographs had been installed around the North Anna Power Station to detect earthquakes, but those were taken offline in the 1990s due to budget cuts, according to the state of Virginia website."

What's up with the twelve "unusual events"? The quake was felt from New York City to Detroit, which caused 12 plants in Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey to report unusual events. Ledford explained the alert system. "An unusual event is the lowest of the four classifications," he said. "The plants basically have to report an unusual event if they record any seismic activity. There's no indication of damage at any other plants." On the sliding scale of notifications, there are unusual events, alerts, area site emergencies and general emergencies. North Ann Power Station is currently the only plant under "alert" mode.

How controversial is nuclear power in Virginia? When the devastating earthquake in Japan triggered discussions in the U.S. about the saftey of nuclear power, Virginia Business reported that the issue remained bulletproof in the state. "There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the near meltdown of Japan’s tsunami-wrecked nuclear power plant, but abandoning nuclear power should not be one of them...that has been the reaction in Virginia from the halls of Congress, the Virginia governor’s office, the state’s largest utility and academia."

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