THE BLOG
09/09/2013 05:25 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2013

Virginia's Fukushima

Japanese authorities continue to dismiss widespread concerns about the Fukushima nuclear disaster response, despite a worsening situation that has seen upwards of 80,000 gallons of radioactive groundwater seep into the ocean on a daily basis. The water is pumped through the crippled reactor to avoid a total meltdown, after which it is funneled into massive storage tanks located on the tsunami-ravaged site. TEPCO, who was placed in charge of the cleanup after years of ignored safety warnings, recently disclosed that many of the tanks are leaking water, despite assurances to the contrary in the recent past. Last week the Japanese government announced an ambitious plan to create a massive, subterranean ice wall in order to contain the leaks. In other words, an irresponsible private corporation is storing millions of gallons of radioactive wastewater in shoddily constructed tanks, directly beside an ongoing level-seven nuclear disaster, without serious consideration that another catastrophic seismic event may happen in the very near future.

TEPCO's ice wall, which will cost upwards of $470 million and take two years to construct, seems reasonable compared to the response from Japan's political leaders. Largely focused on securing the city's successful bid for the 2020 Olympic Games, Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose chose to cite the fact that such large earthquakes like Tohoku in 2011 only happen every 1,000 years. Similarly, in his efforts to garner votes from the International Olympic Committee, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asserted: "I will be explaining to the IOC that in seven years' time, 2020, [Fukushima] will not be a problem at all."

Unfortunately, lack of foresight, cover-ups, earthquakes, and boiling-water reactors aren't unique to Fukushima. Nearly 7,000 miles away, in Louisa, Va., the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station continues to produce electricity on the shores of Lake Anna, an artificial reservoir held in place by a 5,000-foot long earthen dam. Concerns with the site date to the years before its construction: In a 1973 report to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, VEPCO (now Dominion Virginia) covered up its knowledge of major fault lines on the proposed site for the reactors. Completed in 1978, the power plant is located just 11 miles north of the 2011 East Coast Earthquake epicenter. The 5.8 magnitude earthquake caused a generator to fail after a coolant leak and shifted dozens of 115-ton concrete casks containing spent fuel to shift up to 4 inches. The reactors did not operate at regular capacity for months afterwards. The North Anna Dam, also owned by Dominion Virginia, was reportedly not damaged, though information on its ability to withstand a large quake is not publicly available. In January 2012, the site made headlines again when a reactor was shut down to repair a non-radioactive steam leak. The two nuclear reactors at North Anna are built to withstand an earthquake at a magnitude between 5.9-6.1.

Dominion representatives have dismissed concerns with an engineer's arrogance, citing just how sturdy the existing structure was during the seismic episode. "[The casks] are designed not to fall over and they didn't fall over," said Dominion nuclear operations spokesperson Richard Zuercher in September 2011. Regarding the intense shaking, Dominion's chief nuclear officer David Heacock added in October 2011 that the site "could have withstood significantly more." The Nuclear Regulatory Commission later confirmed that the shaking exceeded the design for the site.

As of June 2013, Dominion Virginia has plans to build a third nuclear reactor at the site.

With almost 2 million residents living within the 50-mile evacuation zone, citizens should actively question plans for a new reactor. The earthquake two years ago should have served as a warning, but seems to have become a novel story that comes up now and again in conversation. VEPCO/Dominion Virginia, who built the entire North Anna site under false pretenses, now assures the public that it has taken appropriate measures. When the Justice Department discovered the cover-up in 1977, VEPCO was fined just $32,500. In contrast, Dominion spent $21 million on repairs and analysis following the East Coast earthquake. While their response thus far is certainly a good thing, their preparation for such an event was not. Then and now, authorities show a significant lack of foresight. Much like TEPCO in Japan, engineers and spokespeople continue to cite the extremely low likelihood of a catastrophic event or a meltdown. Despite their unlikeliness, anomalous events do happen at nuclear sites, and the ramifications will surely outlast all of us.

While very few lives may be lost as a direct result of the Fukushima disaster, the environmental impact is still playing out. Japanese authorities appear helpless and desperate in their search for a solution. In the event of a catastrophe (for instance, a large hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or attack), will Dominion similarly find itself scrambling for solutions? Though Virginia's Fukushima has not yet materialized, the political climate surrounding it is not unlike Japan's before 2011. Utilities continue to take advantage of a forgetful public while ignoring the risks that surround the construction and maintenance of nuclear sites in disaster zones. A once-in-a-thousand-year chance does not guarantee that disaster will evade us for a millennium.

CLARIFICATION: 9/12

Some readers correctly pointed out that the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station is a pressurized water reactor (PWR) and not a boiling water reactor (BWR). Dominion Virginia originally proposed construction of a new economic simplified boiling water reactor (ESBWR), but changed their proposal to an advanced pressurized water reactor (APWR) in 2010. As of April 2013, it appears that they have reverted to their original plan to build the ESBWR. Both Fukushima and North Anna were constructed in the late 1970s.