Study: Richland nuclear plant downplaying earthquake risk

Tri-City HeraldNovember 1, 2013 

— Earthquake risks at the nuclear power plant near Richland were underestimated when the facility was built and plant officials have downplayed the possible threats, a new study says.

The study, commissioned by activist group Physicians for Social Responsibility, reviewed seismic research and investigations conducted in the 30 years since Energy Northwest’s Columbia Generating Station was built.

Faults near the plant stretch longer and deeper than originally thought, additional faults have been found and new signs of relatively recent seismic activity discovered, the study says.

Energy Northwest hasn’t acted on the new information, the group says, even after federal regulators asked the plant’s operators to evaluate it in 2010 for additional earthquake risk.

“They need to study and upgrade the plant. If it can’t be upgraded, it should be shut down,” said Steve Gilbert, Washington state chapter president for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Plant officials said they are aware of the study and take earthquake risks seriously, having partnered with the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland on a large-scale seismic study.

They said an initial reading of the Physicians for Social Responsibility’s report indicates it is largely theoretical.

“They’re taking public documents and seem to be arranging them to tell a unique story that isn’t necessarily in context,” said Energy Northwest spokesman Mike Paoli.

Construction of the vitrification plant to glassify nuclear waste at Hanford was halted by the U.S. Department of Energy in early 2006 so tests could be done to ensure it was designed to adequately handle a severe earthquake.

In August 2007 the Department of Energy ordered restart of full construction on the project after research confirmed that the margin built into the design was sufficient.

The vit plant issues got Physicians for Social Responsibility’s attention and provided the impetus for the study, Gilbert said. The March 2011 meltdowns at three Japanese power plants, caused by a coolant failure brought about by a tsunami, gave further reason to investigate. The Fukushima and Richland plants are of a similar design.

Terry Tolan, a Kennewick-based consulting geologist, wrote the Physicians for Social Responsibility report. He used his past research in the Columbia Basin and that of other researchers and sources such as the U.S. Geological Survey to back his findings. He could not be reached by the Herald on Friday.

The power plant was built to seismic standards determined by several factors, such as the location and nature of nearby geological features, including the Rattlesnake hills and Saddle Mountains, the study said. Historical incidents, including a 6.5 to 7.4 magnitude earthquake that struck the Pacific Northwest in December 1872 and another that hit near Milton-Freewater in 1936, also were considered.

But research cited in Tolan’s report said some faults have been found to be longer and deeper, creating the possibility of more dangerous earthquakes. The one responsible for the Yakima Ridge is now known to extend east into the Hanford site.

The epicenter of the 1872 quake, originally estimated to have been at least 180 miles from the power plant, is now thought to have been within 100 miles of the plant, increasing the potential risk of similar incidents in the future, said the report.

“No seismic structural upgrades have been made at the Columbia Generating Station despite all of the geologic evidence that has been assembled over the past 30 years which has dramatically increased the seismic risk at the site,” said the summary of the study.

The power plant, federally relicensed last year to operate through 2043, is equipped to withstand earthquakes, including seismic bracing to hold components firmly in place, Paoli said.

There haven’t been any physical modifications made to the plant to further help stabilize it in case of an earthquake but Energy Northwest’s assistant vice president for engineering, Dave Swank, told the Herald it wasn’t built to minimal standards.

“There’s a lot of margin built in,” he said.

The nuclear energy industry took a collective step back to consider the implications of a severe earthquake after Fukushima, Paoli said. It was what motivated Energy Northwest to partner with PNNL on a broad seismic study of the region. About 15 to 20 independent seismologists and other experts are expected to turn in their findings to federal nuclear regulators in March 2015. Their initial results haven’t indicated a heightened risk to the facility, plant officials said.

PNNL’s team may eventually learn that the power plant is facing a greater seismic risk than originally estimated, Swank said.

“Even with a larger hazard, that doesn’t mean we’d necessarily have to do anything in the plant,” he said.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission asked Energy Northwest in a 2010 letter to reassess seismic risks partially because of the concerns raise at the Hanford vit plant construction site 10 miles away.

“I think we have the evidence to prove (the risk),” Gilbert said. “The plants are not far apart.”

The plant’s operators responded that the power plant and the vit facility are far enough apart and on different enough terrain that their risks are different.

Gilbert disagreed. “I think (the National Regulatory Commission) should revisit their relicensing,” he said.

The study’s findings, which have been forwarded to federal regulators, further erode the justification for keeping the power plant open, he said.

Earlier this year the Washington and Oregon chapters of Physicians for Social Responsibility also commissioned a study on the possibility of shutting down the nuclear plant because its power is too expensive.

It said the plant’s energy output -- about 1,000 megawatts or enough to power Seattle -- also is minuscule compared to what is generated by wind and hydropower in the region.

However, Bonneville Power Administration and Energy Northwest said a study they conducted on a temporary or permanent shutdown of the plant shows that would increase the cost of power for the region at least $2.5 billion during the next 20 years.

Another activist group, the Union of Concerned Scientists, tracks the various safety issues facing dozens of nuclear power facilities around the country.

The group is currently looking into potential seismic issues facing a California facility but doesn’t list on its website any earthquake risk for the Richland plant.

Elliott Negin, news director for Union of Concerned Scientists’ departments of global security and nuclear power, said Friday he was unaware of the new study.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver

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