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Rapid Response: Responding to Frontline's 'Nuclear Aftershocks,' Jan. 18, 2012

The PBS news series “Frontline” on Tuesday aired a report, “Nuclear Aftershocks,” that examined the implications of the Fukushima event for U.S. nuclear safety. Generally, the report by Frontline’s Miles O'Brien was a balanced presentation of the accident in Japan and steps that U.S. companies are taking to make safe nuclear energy facilities even safer. However, some assertions lacked adequate research, balance or context.

Here is a look at some of these claims.

Myth #1: Seismic Issues at Indian Point Energy Center in New York

Miles O'Brien interviews Columbia University geologist Lynn Sykes, who has spent years arguing that Indian Point is not fully prepared for earthquakes.

O’Brien: “When they were designing Indian Point, [the Ramopo fault] was unknown?”
Sykes: “This was unknown …”
O’Brien: “If they were designing the plant today, says Sykes, the NRC would certainly take into account the newly discovered seismic data.”

The Facts

The NRC’s evaluations of safety are not static, one-time-only reviews. In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has required modifications to nuclear plants since they were built to meet increasing safety standards. Moreover, the companies that operate U.S. reactors proactively upgrade equipment and safety systems, as the program noted when discussing the North Anna facility's ability to safely withstand the East Coast earthquake last August.

  • Earthquakes in the region near Indian Point were studied by renowned scientists, including seismologist Charles Richter of Caltech, the originator of the Richter scale for characterizing earthquakes. They were characterized as being of minor magnitude and relatively trivial as a threat to the structural integrity of Indian Point. The significance of the recently proclaimed second fault near Indian Point also has been disputed, most notably by Professor Alan Kafka of Boston College.
  • The NRC requires nuclear power plants to be able to withstand the most severe natural phenomena that may occur in the region where they are located, including earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornados, fires and floods. The NRC then requires additional safety margin to account for any uncertainties and to ensure the plant can remain safe in the event that an accident and a severe natural phenomenon occur at the same time.
  • Nuclear power plant designs are based on a detailed evaluation of potential earthquake-induced ground motion at the site. This is followed by thorough analysis, testing and qualification of the plant structures and equipment, using simulated earthquake-induced vibrations.

In 2005, updated seismic hazard estimates by the NRC were higher than previous estimates for some plants in the central and eastern United States. Since then, the agency and the industry have been researching the seismic conditions to best understand the seismic safety margin needed at plants in those regions.

The NRC issued a report concluding that nuclear power plants are safe, that the overall seismic risk estimates remain small, and that current seismic designs provide safety margin to withstand potential earthquakes exceeding the original design safety standards. However, the NRC believes the issue should be further evaluated to better characterize the safety margin. The industry is working with the NRC to develop an efficient method for performing evaluations of new seismic information.

For more information, see the NEI fact sheet “Nuclear Plants Designed and Constructed to Withstand Earthquakes” and the article “Dominion’s North Anna Returns to Full Power After August Earthquake.”

Myth #2: Emergency Preparedness at Nuclear Energy Facilities
As O'Brien drives along a designated “evacuation route” that would be used in the event of an emergency at Indian Point, located near Buchanan, N.Y., he says: “It’s hard to imagine it [the road] standing the test of a real emergency. If you try to imagine everybody getting in their cars, getting on these few limited little roads, it just doesn’t seem to add up. What it would be is total gridlock.”

The Facts

Evacuation plans are rigorously developed, planned and tested by local, state and federal agencies. Furthermore, emergency and evacuation plans for nuclear power plants have proven successful in other emergencies, including hurricanes, fires and chemical spills. Watch this short video for more information:

Companies that operate nuclear energy facilities have strict regulatory requirements for emergency preparedness, including:

  • Regulations that provide the fundamental emergency preparedness requirements for nuclear energy facilities. Each company must meet these requirements to receive and retain an operating license for its reactors. Each plant must conduct a full-scale emergency exercise every two years, coordinated with local and state government agencies.
  • Approval by county officials and the Federal Emergency Management Agency of detailed plans for managing the off-site effects of emergencies that may occur at a commercial nuclear energy facility, including the sharing of data and recommendations to local officials for public actions, such as sheltering in place or evacuation, if needed.
  • Detailed criteria for evaluating on-site and off-site emergency plans and procedures and ensuring compliance with federal regulations.

Local government officials have successfully used the emergency response plans developed by the nuclear industry in other emergencies. Here are two examples:

  • The evacuation of 10,000 people from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1985, following a fire at a city-operated sewage treatment plant that dispersed a cloud of toxic fumes over the city. State and local officials used a draft plan developed for the Duane Arnold nuclear power plant.
  • The evacuation of 17,000 residents of St.Charles Parish, La., following a leak from a nearby chemical plant in 1982. State and local officials worked from a draft plan for Entergy’s Waterford 3 nuclear power plant, which was not yet operating.


For more information, see NEI’s emergency preparedness page and emergency preparedness fact sheet.