Report: Va. Nuclear Plant Owner Knew of Faulting

November 8, 2011

Federal regulators and the operator of a Virginia nuclear power plant rattled by an Aug. 23 earthquake covered up knowledge of geologic faulting at the plant decades ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported Sunday, citing a U.S. Justice Department memo.

Dominion Virginia Power, then operating as Virginia Electric and Power Co., told the former Atomic Energy Commission in June 1973 that “faulting of rock at the site is neither known nor suspected,” even though the company knew about the existence of faulting at the North Anna Power Station, the 1977 memo said.

Dominion’s twin 980-megawatt nuclear reactors at North Anna have been shut down since the Aug. 23 magnitude-5.8 earthquake. Its epicenter was nearby in Mineral.

The utility and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have said the nuclear power plant shut down automatically without damage to safety systems, unusual release of radioactive material or risk to the public.

Regulators eventually fined the company for making material false statements in the North Anna plant’s licensing.

“The events of almost four decades ago are well known and in the public record,” Jim Norvelle, a Dominion Virginia Power spokesman, told the Times-Dispatch.

“While all parties to the North Anna geologic fault case agreed the company never had any intent to deceive the NRC and that it believed the statements were true at the time they were made, the company was fined $32,500,” Norvelle said.

“A related proceeding concluded that there were no seismic safety issues at the site to prevent construction and operation of North Anna because the fault was considered inactive,” Norvelle said.

The memo was written by U.S. Department of Justice attorney Bradford F. Whitman. His investigation determined that the utility had a “consistent policy” of not filing “any formal document” that would have informed the Atomic Energy Commission’s licensing board and the public about the fault.

Meantime, the memo states, staff at the commission was “well aware of the fault and determined not to take any immediate action” to stop the plant’s construction or reopen the licensing hearings.

The newspaper said it had recently obtained the Whitman memo.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission replaced the Atomic Energy Commission in 1975.

Whitman recommended against prosecuting the utility for its alleged failure to disclose the fault because federal regulators participated in the effort to keep the fault quiet.

“It was a really difficult thing for us to do anything as prosecutors because our client agency . was involved,” Whitman said Friday. The government “wasn’t deceived, it was part of it.”

At a public hearing last week, the NRC said the agency continues to inspect the plant and review information.

The NRC told operator Dominion last month that it needed agency approval before restarting the reactors after the earthquake caused peak ground movement greater than what the plant was designed to withstand.

Dominion officials say the units are ready to restart.

Several environmental groups have asked the NRC to suspend the company’s license to restart the plant.

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