09/06/2011 04:50 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2011

Two Important Takeaways From the DC Quake

OK, so the East Coast earthquake didn't amount to all that much. Most people have already pretty much forgotten about it. But if the earth didn't move enough to get people to rethink some of their assumptions, it will end up being like that old joke about the drowning man who refuses a lift from a passing ship because he is "waiting for a sign from God."

Washington is full of cynics - people who have seen it all and have all the answers. "It will never happen" is freely tossed around with a casual arrogance that being inside-the-beltway fosters.

Sooooo that thing that will never happen -- it did happen. And when it happened, the first aftershock was really a verbal aftershock when the news spread that the epicenter was just ten miles away from the North Anna Nuclear Generating Station's reactors. "OMG," people squealed "is this going to be like Japan??"

Nuclear safety expert Bob Alvarez quickly ascertained that Lake Anna was only designed to withstand up to a 5.9 to 6.1 earthquake on the Richter scale. Ours was a 5.8.  

I have two takeaways from that fact.

First: Wow are we lucky the regulatory process wasn't watered down any more than it had been. Last week, the Associated Press reported that 27 nuclear power plants across the country are more vulnerable to earthquakes than previously thought. But what they didn't report is that regulators have been knowingly giving a pass to nuclear operators on "seismic qualification" - i.e. earthquake preparedness - for years. Exactly fifteen years ago, POGO released a report entitled "Who the Hell is Regulating Who?" quoting one of the then-nuclear regulators who was asking why the weak-kneed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was letting industry get away with ignoring or watering down safety rules from what government inspectors thought they should be. I do not rest easy thinking that if that earthquake was just somewhat more powerful -- just a few tenths of a percent on the Richter scale -- we might not be laughing about knocked over lawn chairs after the quake. I hope the new awareness of how we just squeaked by this time will force the NRC to get a backbone and impose the standards they set, not what industry wanted, and hopefully with a little more wiggle room than .1.

Second: The current debate in Washington about regulation is impossibly shallow. Largely ignored is the public value in the type of regulations, for example, that ensured the Lake Anna reactors were prepared (albeit barely) to withstand the jolt from below, or the building codes that gave people comfort in going back into their offices and homes. We must give due weight to the need for government to set rules we can count on to protect our health and safety. Regulations are often life-savers that save money and protect the health of the economy in the long-run.

Hopefully, in the end, the earthquake knocked some heads together in Washington and got people thinking a little harder.