This is why our best bet is planning for the worst. And when we look at the US nuclear energy infrastructure, it becomes clear that we aren't planning for the worst – not even close.
We had a pretty good warning earlier this year, when the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan caused an even bigger tragedy when the Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered a meltdown. Tuesday's earthquake was the worst on the east coast of the US since 1944, measuring at 5.8 on the Richter scale. And while we certainly avoided the kind of crisis that Japan has endured, two nuclear reactors near the site, at the North Anna nuclear power plant, were shut down following the quake. The plant temporarily lost power and halted operations until it switched to back-up generators. Twelve other plants around the country were put on alert following the quake.
Though a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission told reporters that "as far as we know, everything is safe", the event revived fears about the safety of US nuclear plants. Most of the region's reactors were reportedly designed to withstand a 5.9 to 6.1 magnitude quake – which means Tuesday's quake was, for many, too close for comfort.
At Fukushima, the reactors were built to withstand a 7.9 magnitude quake. But then, they were hit with a 9.0 quake. While it's true that the bigger problem at Fukushima was the loss of power and the failure of back-up power to keep the cooling systems running, it was a reminder that we never know exactly what kind of curveballs nature will throw at us. Nuclear plants are supposed to be able to handle the anticipated quake intensity and likelihood relevant to their location. But what happens when the quake is stronger than anyone anticipated? And what happens if something else goes wrong, too?
The North Anna plant is located about 15 miles from the epicentre of the quake in Mineral, Virginia. It was designed to withstand a 6.2-magnitude quake, according to its owner, Dominion Resources. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission lists the plant as one of the 10 US plants most at risk of damage in a seismic event. So, it seems like we got lucky in this case.
We're also lucky that this particular plant isn't as close to an urban centre as many others in the US. It's nearly 50 miles from Richmond, and about 100 miles from Washington, DC. But the plant that the NRC deemed most at risk was the Indian Point 3 reactor in Buchanan, New York – just 38 miles from New York City. This is the primary reason why New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for the plant to be shut down. After Fukushima, everyone within 50 miles of the plant had to be evacuated. Right now, our evacuation plans for all our nuclear sites only cover a 10-mile radius. If something really bad were to happen at Indian Point, it could create the need to evacuate 21 million people.
We need to seriously consider the potential for a combination of events like those in Japan earlier this year – a natural disaster (or two), infrastructure failure and the human migration that would inevitably occur in its wake. But the NRC has so far defended its minimal emergency zones, despite unease about preparedness.