26 October 2011
To many in Louisa County, the North Anna Nuclear Power Station has always been a good neighbor.
Since its construction in the 1970s, the plant’s proprietor, Dominion Virginia Power, (formerly Virginia Electric and Power) has funneled over $250 million into the county’s coffers, including a $10.4 million tax bill in 2010, roughly 12 percent of Louisa’s $87 million operating budget.
The facility’s security, maintenance and operation requires about900 permanent workers, making Dominion one of the county’s largest employers.
Lake Anna, the 13,000-acre body built to provide cooling water to the plant’s twin reactors, also offers vast recreational opportunities. Created by damming the North Anna River, the lake-dotted with subdivisions, marinas and restaurants-has transformed what was once farms and forests into a destination for retirees and vacationers.
Many who live along the lake’s 200 miles of shoreline have had little cause to question the plant’s safety. But, in mid March, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami triggered one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant and prompted Dominion officials half a world away to assure residents that a similar catastrophe wasn’t likely to happen here.
Less than six months later, at 1:51 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 23, Dominion’s promises were put to the test. A magnitude 5.8 temblor-the strongest seismic event ever recorded in Central Virginia-rattled the east coast, its epicenter just 11 miles from the plant.
The intense shaking, beyond the capacity for which North Anna was designed and licensed, tripped the plant’s reactors, an unprecedented event in the country’s 55-year history of commercial nuclear power production.
With the plant in cold shutdown, Dominion reassured an anxious public. The utility reported no significant damage and insisted its safety systems were up to the task.
But the quake and its aftermath have stirred doubts and reignited decades’ old debates surrounding North Anna’s construction and licensing. Some local residents and industry watchdogs are voicing serious concerns about the plant and questioning the propriety of the power brokers who brought it here some 40 years ago.
Earthquake stirs concerns
When the ground shook on that bright Tuesday afternoon, an operator in North Anna’s control room reached for a manual shut down lever. Seconds before he could flip the switch, the facility’s two Westinghouse pressurized water reactors tripped and the plant lost off-site power. Four back-up diesel generators automatically revved up, fueling essential systems. Operators sent out an “Alert,” the second lowest of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) four emergency calls. Within an hour, one of the generators leaked coolant and failed. A fifth generator replaced it until grid power was restored later in the day.
Initially, Dominion reported that the plant’s reactors shut down because of the power loss. But several weeks later, the company said ground vibrations triggered a power dip in there actors causing control rods to interrupt nuclear fission. At press time, the reactors had not been in operation since the Aug. 23 earthquake. North Anna is not permitted to restart until the NRC grants approval.
Officials insisted there was no significant damage to the approximately 1800-megawatt facility or its safety systems. The utility found mainly “cosmetic” issues including minor cracks in several walls, damaged roof vents and an 11-inch by11-inch crack in a support pedestal for a water cleanup tank on the turbine deck, the plant’s highest level. It attributed the loss of grid power to a damaged transformer.
Nine days after the quake, Dominion added that 25 of 27 vertical dry storage casks, weighing 115 tons when full of highly radioactive spent fuel, moved on their concrete pads, some more than four inches. The plant’s horizontal dry storage casks also slightly shifted.
At a public meeting at the North Anna Information Center on Oct.3, NRC investigators delivered their augmented inspection team’s preliminary report, concurring with Dominion’s findings. “We found no significant damage to the plant from the earthquake,” Resident Inspector Greg Kolcum told a standing room only crowd. “In addition, the team found the earthquake did not impact the ability of the plant’s safety systems to perform their safety functions.”
But Kolcum verified that “the earthquake activity exceeded levels to which the plant was originally licensed.” Both NRC and Dominion officials were quick to point out that these vibrations only lasted several seconds and that nuclear plants are built with sizable safety margins.
While the NRC assured the public that the plant will not be permitted to operate until Dominion demonstrates that it is safe, the regulators shied away from some specific questions about the plant’s controversial history and exactly what hurdles Dominion must clear on the road to restart. An NRC restart team began surveying the facility in early October and a meeting with Dominion was set for Oct. 21 at the commission’s Rockville, Maryland headquarters.
After listening to detailed questions from several attendees, the regulators did concede that while officials completed a full inspection of Unit Two’s reactor vessel, which was scheduled for a refueling outage in October, a survey of Unit One’s vessel was not required.
That revelation sparked concern from some industry watchdogs. University of Virginia nuclear physicist Donal Day said he was surprised that a full inspection of both reactors was not required. “I don’t think it’s prudent. Those two reactors aren’t exactly the same. No two in the country are,” Day said. “Do you check the air pressure in just one of your tires because the others are the same make and model?”
Louisa resident Jerry Rosenthal of the Charlottesville-based People’s Alliance for Clean Energy agreed. He and other citizens have made a series of requests related to the plant’s seismic standards and potential restart, which include a full inspection of Unit One.
In part, Rosenthal and members of Not On Our Fault Line-a recently-formed group with a number of Louisa County residents in its ranks-are asking that the NRC demand the same seismic standards for Units One and Two as may be expected of North Anna’s proposed Unit Three, which, if built, will likely be designed to withstand much greater ground motion. According the Richmond Times Dispatch, Unit Three’s seismic design standards are currently being reevaluated.
NOOFL draws its name from an often-overlooked chapter in the plant’s history centered on the site’s geology. “When Dominion was building the first two units, they discovered a faultline during construction then lied about it to [regulators]. They were only fined $32,000 then allowed to continue to build on top of a fault line,” NOOFL member Sara Tansey said. “We decided we would accentuate that point.”
In Rosenthal’s view, both Dominion and regulators have continued to ignore geological issues. “When North Anna applied for an Early Site Permit for North Anna Three and did an environmental review, they did not include any seismic information. This was brought up. They then went and wrote a couple paragraphs... the NRC was completely nonchalant about that because we don’t have earthquakes, in case you didn’t know,” he said.
A Louisa resident, who received a NOOFL flyer just before the public meeting, asked about the concealed fault but the NRC and Dominion executives offered little comment. After the fault was reported in 1973, plant officials and regulators said it was ancient and inactive.
Day sees the original site choice as ill-advised and believes retrofitting the reactors is a reasonable request. “If the third reactor demands a higher standard, why wouldn’t the first two? This is where the bottom line creeps in,” he said. But he noted that, through the years, Dominion has “learned” to run its plants safely. “Dominion’s safety record is pretty good. Like all new industries, it takes time. But you don’t get to undo many mistakes at a nuclear power plant,” he said.
Dominion spokesman Richard Zuercher doesn’t think the company will be required to retrofit. He said, in a telephone interview in mid October, that Units One and Two had been “hardened” in the 1990s and further enhanced after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Rosenthal and NOOFL supporters are also asking that some radioactive spent fuel stored in pools be moved to dry casks. At Fukushima Daiichi, where the plant lost its cooling system, experts feared that water in the pools would boil away and expose spent fuel rods. Leaks and spills are an additional worry. “I think they need to move all the fuel over five years old out of wet storage to dry casks before they [restart]. They found out at Fukushima that the waste contains more radioactivity than the stuff in the reactor itself,” said Rosenthal, who, in the late 1970s, was instrumental in Louisa County’s successful fight to bar Virginia Electric and Power (VEPCO)from storing radioactive waste from its Surry plant at North Anna. The NRC reported that the spent fuel pools were not damaged and experienced no sloshing during the quake.
Three areas not under the NRC’s regulatory authority are also of concern: that rate payers’ bills will rise to cover the cost of the North Anna shutdown; the vulnerability of the Lake Anna dam; and potential leaks in a maze of pipes underneath the plant.
Zuercher said he could not offer specific numbers on just how much the North Anna shutdown is costing the company but did note that nuclear power is its cheapest energy source and that the plant, when operating at peak, produces nearly 20 percent of Dominion’s electric generation in the state. The Times-Dispatch recently reported that replacing the power cost the utility $1 to $2million a day, according to company officials.
Some citizens have suggested that customers should not pay for Dominion’s “mistake.” The company argued that the earthquake was an unforeseen natural disaster beyond its control.
Rosenthal said that the dam, which is not seismically qualified by Dominion’s own admission but has been inspected since the August 23 quake, needs careful evaluation as the lake is the source of the plant’s vital cooling water. When questioned at the Oct. 3meeting, the NRC maintained that Dominion has a backup cooling source on site that it believes would be sufficient if the dam was lost.
Rosenthal, who insisted even before the quake that Louisa County should distribute potassium iodine pills, which can block some radiation from harming humans, disagreed. “They have a six-acre pond that would last maybe a week,” he said.
Last year, Dominion voluntarily reported that a North Anna test well had higher than expected levels of the weak radioactive isotope tritium, a byproduct of nuclear power production. A web of pipes, which carry tritium-laced water, run beneath the plant and both Rosenthal and NOOFL want all of the piping inspected before restart. Rosenthal noted that tritium leaks are a problem at a number of facilities. At one site in Illinois, the proprietor provides bottled water to local residents because drinking water is considered unsafe, he said.
According to Dominion, only 700 feet of the piping channels radioactive materials and 100 feet have been inspected, with no cracks or leaks found. The remainder, the company said, will be checked over time.
To Tansey that assurance is little consolation. “As of 2004, Dominion itself admitted there had been 56 leaks. That was eight years ago. We just had an earthquake and they are still refusing to check [all] the pipes,” she said.
NOOFL has taken its concerns to downtown Richmond and beyond. In late September, about 40 protesters carried signs and passed out flyers outside Dominion headquarters. “I am raising six children in Louisa. The county would not even think of reopening a school that hadn’t been fully inspected and repaired. In fact two school buildings are closed for the rest of the year ... so why wouldn’t we check the underground pipes that could contaminate our water? Why wouldn’t we retrofit the existing reactors to make them safer?” Louisa resident Sue Frankel-Streit said in a statement released after the demonstration.
According to a statement released just before press time, NOOFL and other environmental groups filed an Emergency Enforcement Petition with the NRC on Oct. 20. The petition aims to prevent North Anna from restart until both reactors are fully inspected, the plant’s seismic design standards are reevaluated and the Lake Anna dam is thoroughly analyzed and seismically qualified.
The making of North Anna
More than 50 years ago, the potential of nuclear power began attracting the attention of utility companies across the country. Born out of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. military’s secret pursuit of atomic weapons, the technology was heralded by some as a power source “too cheap to meter” and viewed by many more as a clean, homegrown solution to the nation’s long-range energy needs. By the late 1960s, dozens of plants sought licenses for commercial operation.
VEPCO, the state’s largest utility, wasn’t exempt from theexcitement, quietly laying plans for a pair of plants-one in the swamps of thetidewater, the other in the Central Virginia wilderness.
In early 1968, residents along Louisa’s remote northern bordernoticed surveyors’ markers dotting the land. On April 9th, they finally found out why.
In a meeting at Sacra’s restaurant along Mineral’s Main Street, VEPCO officials informed Louisa’s Board of Supervisors that the company planned to build its second nuclear generating facility on the banks of the North Anna River. A vast lake, spanning portions of Louisa, Spotsylvania and Orange counties, would accompany the plant.
Supervisors voiced their full support for the project, which promised to generate hundreds of thousands of desperately-needed tax dollars annually. Vice Chairman V. Earl Dickinson called the plan the “greatest thing to ever happen to Louisa County.” Orange Supervisor R. Lindsay Gordon dubbed it “manna from heaven.”
Some landowners weren’t convinced. “Everyone was really upset because VEPCO was being so secretive,” recalled James Duerson, whose family had farmed nearly 400 acres along the river for more than a century. The Duersons and their neighbors stood to lose much of their property to the lake.
Two years later, amid condemnation suits to determine fair prices for some farms and home places, contractors cleared thousands of acres of fields and forests, reducing them to a muddy expanse that would eventually be burned. In January 1972, North Anna’s dam was plugged and the lake began to fill.
The Duersons parlayed their loss into opportunity. On what was left of his farm, James’s father,Vergil, developed Bear Castle, the lake’s first subdivision, while his son traded milking cows for building houses.
Citing the burgeoning demand for energy and insisting that nuclear power was safe, VEPCO carved big plans for the lakeside plant. The company said it would build four reactors with the capacity to power hundreds of thousands of homes.
Though nuclear power was cheaper to produce than coal or oil-VEPCO’s other options-such facilities required huge investments. The company was prepared to pour hundreds of million of dollars into North Anna’s construction.
VEPCO’s hopes of bringing the plant’s first reactor online by1974 quickly fell behind schedule and its site choice soon drew opposition. Concerned with both radioactive and thermal pollution-two dangerous byproducts of nuclear power’s production-the North Anna Environmental Coalition, comprised of citizens from around Central Virginia, voiced full-throated criticism of the project. Its spokeswoman, June Allen, became well-known to VEPCO executives as she and her group contested the facility through a series of permitting processes and, eventually, a court battle.
“I think [June Allen] surprised everyone with her knowledge of the technicalities of the nuclear industry because it was not her background... I don’t think the power company knew what to make of her,” said Louisa attorney Rae Ely, who befriended Allen in the early 1970s and described her as a beautiful, impeccably dressed woman who wore pearls to public hearings. “She was so well-prepared that at every public hearing she could stand up to any expert in nuclear physics and address every point without flinching or stumbling. I never knew how she did it.”
Folks involved in the plant’s construction also voiced concern. By the spring of 1969, as workers excavated sites for the reactors’ concrete containment domes, engineers from VEPCO contractor Dames and Moore observed joints and rock conditions that they deemed “unfavorable.”
The firm suggested that geologists carefully examine the site. That North Anna sat on the edge of the recently-documented Central Virginia Seismic Zone made such a study especially imperative.
On February 23, 1970, John W. Funkhouser, a geology professor at Petersburg’s John Tyler Community College, visited the site. The Stanford PHD, who had spent years as a staff geologist for Standard Oil, quickly identified a dark chlorite seam and accompanying fault line in Unit One’s excavation pit.
A month later, Funkhouser took another look. This time, he brought Dr. Bruce Goodwin, atop structural geologist at William and Mary, and another colleague. The trio confirmed the presence of a fault and informed a VEPCO official of their finding.
As North Anna wended through construction hearings in front of the Atomic Energy Commission-the government entity charged with both promoting and regulating the nuclear industry-and submitted environmental impact reports and other analysis, VEPCO officials maintained that its units would be built on solid bedrock and that the presence of a fault line was “neither known nor suspected.”
The AEC granted North Anna its construction permit for Units One and Two in March of 1971. Units Three and Four’s construction hearing concluded in May of 1973. But the company’s billion dollar project was about to hit a major snag.
On May 17, 1973, just after its construction hearings for Units Three and Four closed, VEPCO finally conceded what Funkhouser and his colleagues had insisted three years earlier. In a letter to the AEC, the company reported that an ancient fault had been identified at the site.
For three months, no one from either VEPCO or the AEC talked about the fault publicly. Construction at the plant pushed on and the utility’s massive bills continued to add up.
NAEC Spokeswoman June Allen had heard whispers about the site’s shaky geology and, on August 4th, her group informed the public that North Anna’s reactors would sit astride a fault that VEPCO had deliberately concealed.
In a press conference three days later, VEPCO executives countered the claims. A team of geologists insisted that the fault was inactive and more than 70 million years old, and one scientist described the Central Virginia Seismic Zone as “relatively dead.”
The AEC, under pressure from NAEC, soon began investigations and hearings about the fault line and VEPCO’s alleged cover-up. Company officials maintained that the fault was minor and its geology team only determined its presence months not years before.
Funkhouser and Goodwin told investigators and reporters that they informed a company official of the fault in March 1970. Of VEPCO’s claim that it only recently discovered the fault, Funkhouser told The Daily Progress, “It has shades of Watergate doesn’t it? I don’t see how they could have missed it.” Funkhouser described the fault as “a textbook example;” Goodwin dubbed it a “classic fault.”
Still, Funkhouser and Goodwin didn’t believe the fault, which runs under the plant site and beneath the lake, was a significant threat with regard to movement but pointed to related concerns. Because groundwater was seeping into the chlorite seam, they worried that an accident, in which radioactive materials were spilt, would contaminate both the ground and lake’s water.
Pointing to geological studies in Rangely, Colorado and at Nevada’s Lake Mead, they also voiced concern that water pressure could reactivate a long-dead fault. At Rangely, studies showed that injecting water into faults could cause quakes. Following the impoundment of Lake Mead-a vast reservoir much larger than Lake Anna-increased seismic activity was recorded. Both geologists said they would not recommend a containment dome be constructed atop the fault.
At a “show cause.” hearing in front of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB), VEPCO argued the fault was not a threat and noted that the company stood to lose $127 million if construction was halted for just six months. Regulators eventually sided with the utility.
Federal officials deemed the North Anna site safe early in 1974and, in July, a construction permit was granted for Units Three and Four. But the company and its regulators couldn’t shrug off the deception.
In 1975, the ASLB concluded that VEPCO lied about the fault. The board found that the utility made 12 materially false statements and issued a $60,000 fine, the largest peace-time penalty in the history of the atomic industry. The fine was later reduced to$32,000.
During the concealment hearing, testimony was provided by a number of key players but John W. Funkhouser wasn’t able to speak for himself. On December 3, 1974, Funkhouser was fatally shot with a 22-caliber rifle in his Chester apartment. Ray William Cook Jr., one of Funkhouser’s former students, was arrested for the crime after holding up a nearby 7-11 later that day. In a two and a half hour trial, Cook was convicted of 1st degree murder.
As for criminal charges in the company’s concealment of the fault, the U. S. Justice Department determined, according to a memo obtained by the Washington Post in September1977, that it was useless to file charges against the utility because the NRC-the regulating body that replaced the AEC in 1974-had colluded in the cover-up. “We would have a much stronger case against VEPCO but for the actions of the NRC in sanctioning the continued construction by VEPCO and concealing on its own part from the Atomic Safety andLicensing Board the discovery of the fault,” the memo read.
Overcoming obstacles, getting on the grid
The utility was dogged by financial, labor and safety problems throughout the mid 1970s. In 1974,hundreds of workers went on strike halting construction at the plant. Two years later, a pipe fitter, overcome by argon gas, fell to his death. Three employees were fired after the accident prompting a worker protest. In 1977, the NRC slapped VEPCO with a roughly$31,000 fine because of shoddy workmanship and safety concerns at the site.
But the utility won a significant court victory in 1976. In North Anna Environmental Coalition vs. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a suit filed by NAEC after the ASLB determined the fault line safe, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit affirmed the board’s decision, giving North Anna its blessing.
The plant’s Unit One began commercial operation in June of 1978while Unit Two went on-line in December of 1980, ending VEPCO’s 14-yearconstruction effort. The units, which power about 450,000 homes in central and northern Virginia, were licensed to operate for 40 years. In 2003, the NRC granted Dominion Virginia Power a 20-year license extension.
Rethinking the nuclear option
On March 28th, 1979, Louisa residents, along with the rest of the country, came face to face with the perils of nuclear power when a relatively small malfunction, compounded by human error, caused a partial core meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island plant.
Though a major radiation release was averted, the accident dealt a serious blow to an industry already struggling under the weight of huge construction costs. No new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States since the event. VEPCO shelved plans for North Anna’s Units Three and Four in the early 1980s.
But the industry has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. And advocates are again pushing the nuclear option as cheap, clean and homegrown. Dominion took its plans for North Anna’s third reactor off the back burner and, in 2007, the NRC granted an Early Site Permit, the first major step toward construction.
The company inked a deal with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for a1, 463-megawatt pressurized water reactor last year. During the utility’s “State of the Plant” report to the Louisa County Board of Supervisors in March, Site Vice President Larry Lane said the company plans to make a final decision on the unit in2013.
Neither Day nor Rosenthal see the multi-billion dollar project as a viable option, not because of the utility’s safety concerns but because of massive building costs.
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, doubts about the energy source have grown. Germany, where nearly a quarter of electricity comes from nuclear plants, will discontinue use by 2022 and Japan is reevaluating its program.
The recent Mineral quake, of course, has brought North Anna’s history back into the spotlight. Though June Allen died in 2010, her long fight against the plant has gained renewed attention and helped invigorate longtime activists and newcomers.
Much of the history included in this article was drawn from the archives of The Washington Post, The Daily Progress, The Richmond Times Dispatch, The Richmond News Leader, The Free Lance Star, The Central Virginian, The Daily Press as well as documents from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Dominion Resources, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Washington D.C. Circuit and the North Anna Environmental Coalition.
Many articles and documents detailing North Anna’s history can be found in the Louisa County Historical Society’s Archives.
Could North Anna’s evacuation zone include Fluvanna?
After an earthquake and tsunami triggered nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) urged Americans within 50 miles of the facility to evacuate.
That suggestion turned the heads of some industry watchdogs who suggested that the NRC should reevaluate the emergency zones that ring U.S. nuclear plants.
A shift in the zones, which currently encompass a 10-mile evacuation area where radiation could be absorbed through the air and a 50-mile radius where residents could ingest radiation through food and water, could affect thousands of communities including Fluvanna County. All of the county lies within 50 miles of the North Anna Power Station with Palmyra just 35 miles away and parts of the Route 250 corridor barely 20 miles south of the site.
NRC Chairman Greg Jaczko appears to be listening to the concerns. In comments to the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently reported in the Richmond Times Dispatch and other media outlets, Jaczko noted that, in the wake of Fukushima, several areas have been raised for review including “emergency planning, of course seismic issues, contingency planning for situations beyond the design basis of a plant, and others.”
“I believe there is a likelihood that the agency will need to make some changes, although it is too early to say right now precisely what those changes might be,” Jaczko said in a statement released by the NRC in June.
Whether the commission will widen the 10-mile zone-dubbed the Plume Exposure Pathway EPZ-is uncertain. Officials insist that they took a very “conservative” approach after Fukushima but their post-disaster instructions still raise questions about exactly where evacuation lines should be drawn.
Since the March 11 natural disasters in northeastern Japan, citizens as far away as Tokyo, some 140 miles from the damaged plant, have detected radiological hotspots, according to a recent report in The New York Times. High levels of radiation exposure can lead to illness almost immediately as well as causing diseases like cancer in the long term.
In the event of a serious accident, residents in the Plume Exposure EPZ would be alerted by sirens, evacuated to shelters and other areas, and receive potassium iodine pills, which block the absorption of some radiation. – Tammy Purcell