Monday, April 1, 2013

What a 50 Mile Evacuation Zone Means For Virginia and D.C.

It's been two years since the 2011 tsunami and 9.0 earthquake that devastated Japan and wrecked the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Fortunately, the World Health Organization released a report this month concluding that negative health effects from the released radiation would be minimal or not observable.

Louisa County, Virginia, near where I grew up and the family farm still operates, was the epicenter of a smaller 5.8 magnitude earthquake in August 2011. Near by are two nuclear reactors at Lake Anna. After the quake the plant's safety measures worked, and no radiation was emitted. But according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Anna reactors face an annual 1 in 22,727 chance of the core being damaged by an earthquake and exposing the public to radiation. 

Dominion Power, the company that operates the plant, said that Lake Anna was built to withstand a 6.2 earthquake. The Richter scale is logarithmic, meaning that increases at the top of the scale are more dramatic than at the bottom. Even so, it would seem that the 2011 quake was cutting it close to Lake Anna's limits. 

Two other nuclear plants in the area could also pose a risk in the event of a strong earthquake, Surry Nuclear Power Plant in the Tidewater region and Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, southeast of Washington D.C. 

Drawing a 50 mile radius around each plant demonstrates the cultural, national security, and of course population assets that would be caught in the evacuation zones.

Why 50 miles? Transcripts released last year revealed that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) thinks that a 50 mile evacuation zone would be appropriate for a disaster along the lines of Fukushima. Then NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko also urged Americans living within 50 miles of the plant to evacuate. It turned out that the cooling pools had not completely evaporated as previously thought, but the comments raised alarm in energy and environmental community.

Below is a national look of all the nuclear reactors in the country, with a 50 mile buffer shaded around them.

Key Takeaways:
  • Earthquakes pose a threat to our nuclear power plants, most of which were built when Jimmy Carter was president
  • Many environmentalists say it will be impossible to cut emissions from fossil fuel sources to combat climate change without expanding our nuclear profile
  • After Fukushima the body in charge of regulating domestic nuclear energy production re-evaluated their evacuation zones to fifty miles. Highly valuable national assets are within these fifty mile zones. 
More questions than answers. But laying out the problems ahead is the only way to make well-informed decisions.