HUFFINGTON POST
09/04/2011 01:14 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2011

Quake does little to shake town's nuclear faith

By Ayesha Rascoe and Lily Kuo

MINERAL, Virginia (Reuters) - In a village of about 500 where nearly everyone knows someone who works at the local nuclear plant, the recent historic earthquake created more punch lines than new concerns about the safety of their community.

More than a week after an unusual 5.8-magnitude quake rocked the East Coast and shut down the North Anna Nuclear plant, the local diner -- the Lake Anna Smokehouse & Grill -- was selling half-pound "quake burgers" with a side of homemade "nuclear" barbecue sauce.

"I wish I could tell you we are at the edge of the world blowing up, but it just ain't the case," said Ed Blount, leaning on a counter at a gift shop he owns on the shore of man-made Lake Anna, created for the nearby nuclear plant that has yet to restart.

The quake may have caused serious structural damage to schools and homes, but Blount, like many other life-long residents of Mineral, says it did not shake his faith in the safety of Dominion's power station.

"Everyone would know immediately if something was wrong," he said. A store employee showed off a design for a new T-shirt logo: "I survived Lake Shake 2011."

VISITORS IN TOWN

The North Anna plant is under extra scrutiny after initial reviews showed the tremor may have rattled the site at a force above the plant's design parameters.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission dispatched a special team of inspectors to the site, and has said the 1,806-megawatt station will not be allowed to restart until Dominion can show it is safe.

The company says it expects to be able to do that without making expensive retrofits before restarting plant, and on Friday showed journalists signs of what it deemed to be minor damage, some of which has already been repaired.

"I feel safer here than I do driving up and down the highway," said Michael Duffey, who handles internal communications at the plant, during the tour.

It shut down just as it was designed to do when the quake hit, and its employees sprang into action -- something they regularly train for, Jason Russell said.

Russell was a unit supervisor in the plant's control room when the quake hit.

"Earthquake or otherwise, once the reactor trips and you recognize loss of off-site power, the response is really the same," Russell said. "We proceeded as we normally would."

Still, the 30-year-old supervisor said when he went home after his shift that night, the rush of adrenaline from the day made it hard to sleep. He found himself wide awake at 2 a.m. after five hours of rest.

"I was pretty wound up," he said.

FRIENDS ON THE INSIDE

Despite a safety record the industry touts as exemplary, nuclear power plants have seen a spike in public attention since March, when an earthquake and tsunami swamped a nuclear plant in Japan.

The U.S. nuclear regulator is considering overhauling its rules, and will require each plant to run new models to see whether up-to-date earthquake risks are cause for any retrofits to aging plants, most of which were built in the 1970s.

Proponents of nuclear power want to see new plants built with safety improvements. One such plant is planned for the North Anna site, holding the promise for more jobs in the region where it is already a major economic driver.

Herbert Vial, who runs a towing and auto repair business, said his son had called him to say that officials may not be revealing the full extent of the quake's impact at the plant, but he did not share the details of those concerns.

"I've got friends that work over there, if anything bad was going on ... they would move their families wouldn't they?" Vial said as he picked up a bite to eat at a local market.

'NOT MUCH WE CAN DO'

Still, the shut-down and subsequent inquiry has jolted some residents, especially on the day of the quake when the plant lost power, released steam and kicked off back-up diesel generators with a puff of black exhaust.

"I thought there was going to be a nuclear meltdown," said Jennifer Rosenboom, who works at the Food Lion grocery story in Mineral. "I never worried about a meltdown until after the earthquake."

But Rosenboom, who lives within three miles of the North Anna plant, said she also recognized the jobs and cheap power that the plant gives the town.

"There's not much we can do," she said. "We definitely don't want it to close.

But the quake and review have served to fuel the arguments of local critics that plants may not be safe.

Lou Zeller, of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, a green group that focuses on the U.S. Southeast, said the plant should have never been built and that plant officials hid information about a fault line in Virginia during the permitting process.

"I hate to be right sometimes," said Zeller, who said his group had contacted the NRC in 2004 and 2005 about the risks of seismic activity in the region.

"The quake has just made what has been going on below the radar a concern to everyone. Now it's out in the public," he said.

A Dominion spokesman said there had been some issues about withholding information about the fault when the plant was initially built, but he said the plant still was built to proper seismic and safety specifications.

(Editing by Roberta Rampton, Russell Blinch and Gunna Dickson)