After Virginia’s earthquake in August 2011, media immediately compared regional nuclear plants outcomes to the Fukushima Nuclear plant fallout that was damaged in Japan’s unprecedented earthquake and subsequent destructive tsunami. Nuclear plant classification terms were hyped as “Breaking News”, when in fact, nuclear plants activated their preparedness plans and warded any nuclear disaster. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) requires nuclear plants be able to withstand the most severe natural phenomena, including earthquakes and hurricanes.
The NRC’s four emergency classification terms exist so that the proper on-site emergency procedures and inspections can take place if needed. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, a declaration of an “unusual event” or “alert” is not indicative of danger to the public or workers at the plant.
The nuclear site closest to the Mineral, Virginia epicenter was Dominion Virginia Power’s North Anna Nuclear Plant. During an interview with CNN, Dan Stoddard, Senior Vice President - Nuclear Operations with Dominion, said it never entered his mind that this could be another Fukushima because of how the system worked to shut down and activate backup power sources.
NRC has developed a list of emergency classification terms which indicate a level of risk to the public. Nuclear power plants commonly use the four emergency classifications listed below in order of increasing severity.
- Notification of Unusual Event - Events in process or that have occurred which may indicate potential degradation in the level of safety of the plant are labeled Notification of Unusual Event. No release of radioactive material requiring off site response or monitoring is expected unless further degradation occurs.
- Alert - If an alert is declared, events are in process or have occurred that involve an actual or potential substantial degradation in the level of safety of the plant. Any releases of radioactive material from the plant are expected to be limited to a small fraction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protective action guides (PAGs).
- Site Area Emergency - A site area emergency involves events in process or which have occurred that result in actual or likely major failures of plant functions needed for protection of the public. Any releases of radioactive material are not expected to exceed the EPA PAGs except near the site boundary.
- General Emergency - A general emergency involves actual or imminent substantial core damage or melting of reactor fuel with the potential for loss of containment integrity. Radioactive releases during a general emergency can reasonably be expected to exceed the EPA PAGs for more than the immediate site area.
Only after thorough inspections are concluded and the plant is deemed safe for operations are the emergency classifications are lifted.
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