A story in today's Wall Street Journal by the paper's ace energy reporter Rebecca Smith describes an order just issued by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requiring operators of all 96 reactors located in the eastern United States to reevaluate them in terms of revised earthquake risk estimates. Given added urgency by the nuclear catastrophe at Fukushima, where reactors were found to have been not designed for an earthquake of the severity that hit them, the NRC is telling owners of nuclear power plants that they must review them in light of a new seismic risk model jointly developed by the NRC, the Department of Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).
The process of developing that model preceded Fukushima, a point Smith neglects to make. But the model's damage risk estimates are often significantly higher than those considered authoritative when existing nuclear power plants were designed and built. The model suggests, for example, that the worst earthquake expected in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in a 10,000 year period might be twice as damaging to structures as previously expected. (The Sequoyah plant, pictured above, is located 18 miles north of Chattanooga.)
The NRC is giving plant operators four years to complete the reassessments and report back. Predictably, critics of the industry complain that this is much too long, and that the commission already has the information it needs to order changes right now. Industry analysts observe that the process itself will be costly and that it could lead to very costly required upgrades, so costly that some plants might be closed rather than improved.
What is perhaps most notable about Smith's report is the very lively reaction it has elicited. In a half day it has inspired 75 comments and counting, many of them quite extensive. Writers range from those saying no nuclear plant should ever have been built in the first place to those saying the revised seismic assessments are just a big fuss about nothing. In between you'll find some substantial observations of interest.
Post modified on Thursday, Feb. 2, at 1 pm EST in reaction to feedback from the Nuclear Energy Institute, which has not complained about the propriety or costliness of the NRC seismic review.