How safe is the North Anna power plant?

Nestled on an artificial lake in Louisa County lies a power plant with a dubious distinction: This year, it became the first in U.S. history to be knocked offline by an earthquake.

The Louisa plant became the first in U.S. history to be knocked offline by an earthquake. The two nuclear reactors at the plant about 11 miles from the quake's epicenter automatically shut down after the 5.8-magnitude earthquake caused peak ground movement about twice the level for which it was designed. Dominion plans to have the North Anna power station running again by Sunday.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission last week gave the company the go-ahead to restart the reactors. Commission figures show Unit 1 reached full power on Friday morning, while Unit 2 had yet to be restarted.

Most of those who turned out to a recent meeting favored a restart of the plant. The plant employs many local residents. But some fear the consequences.

“Please give the residents of this county and those of us that live near the nuclear power plant plenty of notice so if we opt to evacuate the county in central Virginia we have the opportunity to do that,” said Barbara Crawford, a local resident.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, after thorough inspections, Dominion found no significant damage. Dominion says it spent $21 million on the investigation.

“There is no significant damage to any of the safety systems,” says Eric Leeds, Director of Nuclear Regulation. “The plant shutdown safely.”

But Paul Gunter, director of the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, called it guesswork since the U.S. has never encountered this before. He also filed a petition to prevent the re-launch because he says many areas of North Anna never got inspected while others remain inaccessible to inspection.

“I think that's a fair question,” Gunter says. “Why should we have faith in you now?”

In the 1970s, federal regulators and Dominion concealed knowledge of a fault line at the site of the North Anna power station. 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.

Earthquakes often occur on fault lines.

For some, another cause for concern comes in the form of a law known as the Price Anderson Act. Passed in 1957 to encourage private investment in nuclear power, it could limit the liabilities of a nuclear company in the event of an accident. But regulators say that won't happen here.

“We have reasonable assurance (that it will remain safe),” says Leeds. “Reasonable assurance doesn't include a hundred percent. Reasonable assurance is there's a very, very, very high probability that this plant will remain safe.”