NRC Shrugs off Earthquake Facts for CGS
By Michael Mariotte
New research indicates that Energy Northwest’s Columbia reactor (background) may be at greater risk of earthquake damage than any reactor in the U.S.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week denied a petition filed by Oregon/Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility and other groups asking for a shutdown of Washington’s Columbia reactor until it demonstrates it can meet seismic standards.
The petition was based on a study that found that earthquake risks for the reactor have been greatly underestimated, as reported here in March. The NRC’s denial asserted that PSR had provided no new information and that the agency is already re-examining earthquake and flooding risks at the nation’s reactors, including Columbia. Flooding is a related issue at the site since it sits downstream from a major dam that could be affected by an earthquake and perhaps even without one—a major crack has been revealed in the dam.
It’s not only Columbia that is at risk here, however. It’s the entire sprawling Hanford nuclear reservation, home of leaking barrels of liquid high-level radioactive waste, a mélange of nuclear weapons production facilities and a clean-up effort currently projected by the DOE to take until 2090 to complete.
The NRC may have been premature in its determination that no new information about seismic risks in the region has been uncovered. A new study by scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey, to be published any day now in the journal Tectonophysics, found that the region’s geology could cause amplification of ground motion from distant earthquakes. As a consultant to PSR put it, “Past Hanford seismic hazard/risk assessments basically dismissed distant, large magnitude earthquakes as posing any potential threat to the Hanford Site facilities (including CGS). This article suggests that even a distal Cascadia megaquake could pose a hazard to Hanford Site facilities because of ground motion amplification! This is really a significant finding with regards to earthquake hazard assessment for the CGS/Hanford Site.”
PSR may file an appeal of the Commission’s denial based on this new information. Regardless of the NRC’s decision, however, it is clear based on the earlier PSR petition and the new study that the Columbia reactor is subject to far greater risk from earthquakes than originally designed. Indeed, as a General Electric Mark II reactor, its design is faulty on every level.