WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
The 5.8 earthquake that rattled the East Coast did not damage the area’s nuclear power plants – including Indian Point in upstate New York, Federal and utility officials say. But critics contend the unusually powerful quake for the region should be a wake-up call.
Jim Steets, spokesman for Entergy, operators of Indian Point, said no seismic alarms went off at the Westchester facility on Tuesday although the tremor was felt in the administration portion of the campus, but not in the power plant itself.
"In my mind, if this plant had been right next to the epicenter of that earthquake its design and structure would have provided the necessary protections from it,” Steets said.
The earthquake that originated in Virginia and was felt as far north as Maine did not cause damage to plants but did knock out power in two Virginia facilities, according to the Nuclear Regulator Commission.
Ten plants — including Salem, Hope Creek and Oyster Creek facilities in New Jersey — declared what is known as an "unusual event," the lowest level alert which still requires a post event site inspection.
Three Miles Island in Harrisburg, Pa., and other plants in Pennsylvania, Maryland and as far away as Benton Harbor, Mich., also declared unusual events.
Indian Point did not declare an unusual event because there was not sufficient seismic activity to merit it, said Diane Srcenci, spokeswoman for the NRC.
"There has been no damage, no significant damage at any of the plants and there has been no impact on public health and safety," Srcenci said.
But Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said he thinks the Virginia quake should be seen as wake up call to regulators.
“Within this region the 5.8 is possible,” he said, “and if it happened up on the Ramapo fault near Indian Point there could have been serious consequences.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo, who opposes the Westchester plant's re-licensing, raised Indian Point's seismic vulnerability with the NRC in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.
Plant operator Entergy has already passed NRC's technical evaluations and an environmental review.
But earlier this summer, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman convinced the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board, which oversees the NRC, that the NRC and Entergy had not done a comprehensive enough analysis of how Indian Point would cope with a catastrophic event like a major earthquake.
Indian Point is in the midst of an application to renew its operating license for another 20 years.
The East coast quake comes as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission considers its own internal debate over recommendations from its independent expert panel that examined the US nuclear power industry in light of lessons learned post Fukushima.
The blue ribbon panel said the nation's 104 plants were safe but it was critical of what it said was "a patchwork" of NRC regulations.
It called for the industry to do more to prepare to deal with events like earthquakes that are considered to be low probability but high consequence. events. The panel also called for more robust back-up power supplies.
Map of nuclear reactors in the United States, via The Takeaway.