CantorQuake: Trembling at the Heart of GOP Claims We Don’t Need Government

Back in March, after the Japanese earthquake, Eric Cantor defended Republican plans to cut funding from the USGS and warning systems to help in case of a disaster.

This is the epicenter of the freak 5.9 Richter earthquake that just hit Virginia.

Here’s the location of the Anna 1 and 2 nuclear power plants, which lost power and are now operating on diesel backup generators. Power has now been restored.

And here’s a partial map of Eric Cantor’s district. (h/t lpsrocks)

Update: Maps and Anna plant news updated. Text removed.

Update: The NRC apparently ranks this nuclear power plant as the 7th most likely to be hit by an earthquake.

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ranked the earthquake damage risk at all 104 nuclear power plants in this country. The pair operated by Dominion Power, at Lake Anna in eastern Louisa County, come in at 7th most ‘at risk’ on the list.

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, North Anna 1 and 2 face an annual 1 in 22,727 chance of the core being damaged by an earthquake and exposing the public to radiation.

Update: Apparently, budget cuts in the 1990s led to the removal of seismic equipment at the North Anna plant. (h/t Kirk)

The Virginia Tech Seismological Observatory (VTSO) is one of the primary sources for data on seismic activity in the central East Coast.  In 1963, as part of the worldwide program, seismographs were installed at Blacksburg, and in 1977 several more seismographs were stationed in the Commonwealth and operated by the Virginia Division of Geology and Mineral Resources.  Some of these instruments were stationed around the North Anna Nuclear Power plant, but in the 1990’s, due to budget cuts, most of the North Anna sensors were taken off line.  Along with other southeastern regional seismic networks and the U.S. National Seismic Network, VTSO contributes to seismic hazard assessment in the southeastern United States and compiles a Southeastern U.S. Earthquake Catalog.

Cantor was in VA’s House of Delegates from 1992 to 2001, so there’s a decent chance he had a part in those budget cuts.

Update: Bob Alvarez at POGO provides some detail on the North Anna plant.

According to a representative of Dominion Power, the two reactors were designed to withstand a  5.9-6.1 quake.


The North Anna reactors are of the Westinghouse Pressurized Water design and went on line in 1979 and 1980 respectively. Since then the reactors have generated approximately 1,200 metric tons of nuclear spent fuel containing about 228,000 curies of highly radioactive materials—among the largest concentrations of radioactivity in the United States.

Nearly 40 percent of the radioactivity in the North Anna spent fuel pools is cesium-137—a long-lived radioisotope that gives off potentially dangerous penetrating radiation and also accumulates in food over a period of centuries. The North Anna Pools hold about 15-30 times more Cs-137 than was released by the Chernobyl accident in 1986. In 2003, IPS helped lead a study warning that drainage of a pool might cause a catastrophic radiation fire, which could render an area uninhabitable greater than that created by the Chernobyl accident.

The spent fuel pools at North Anna contain 4-5 times more than their original designs intended. As in Japan, all U.S. power nuclear power plant spent fuel pools do not have steel lined, concrete barriers that cover reactor vessels to prevent the escape of radioactivity.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

52 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    @Bay State Librul: I’m actually growing genuinely worried about that nuke plant. There are reports it was built to withstand a 5.9, which is what this was last graded. It’s 20 miles from the epicenter. And there are also reports all non-emergency staff have evacuated.

  2. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mild tremors were felt hundreds of miles away, and that was a 5.9, nothing like a 7.0 or greater, with no disruption of road, rail, telecoms, electricity production and transmission, mining, etc. Bump it up a little, add in freakishly bad weather or a few other disruptions, and Northern Virginia would be no-go zone for a while. But, hey, let’s just ignore it and allow the government to continue to tout the “unqualified safety” of America’s nukular industry. I wonder what would happen if a similar or higher earthquake struck a few dozen miles east of Toledo?

    BTW, radiation leaks from Fukushima continue at high levels with no end in sight. I believe it is now vying for the worst radiation poisoning since we stopped above-ground nuclear testing.

  3. scribe says:

    God hates Eric Cantor. God knows his heart, and that’s why.

    I thought it more than a little interesting that, when CNN tried to interview the flack for the nuke plant, first they couldn’t get him on the air and, when they finally did, he sounded like he was calling in from Mars.

    I have no faith in a spokes-bot for a nuke plant telling me there’s nothing to worry about, regardless of the context. I lived downwind of Three Mile Island, heard all the spokesbots telling me then there was nothing to worry about, all the while we waited for the southeast quarter of Pennsylvania to be turned into a radioactive desert.

  4. allan says:

    Any core damage will be used as proof by the right that the NRC needs to be abolished so that the market can work its magic on reactor designs.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    @scribe: God doesn’t hate Mr. Cantor or Mr. Bush or even Mr. Obama, nor does she necessarily love a librul. She expects us to sort out our own messes.

  6. Cregan says:

    I think most intelligent people know that the public does not object to funding for USGS, even the GOP really. There are TONS of other funding I’d object to before USGS.

    • bmaz says:

      Source of the east coast earthquake has been discovered – Albert Haynesworth returned to the practice field.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @scribe: They say the tolerance was built to 5.9-6.1.

    WTF does that mean? It is a range, just like a Gallup poll? “Give or take a spent fuel rod!”

  8. prostratedragon says:

    [sigh] I’m thinking about changing my standard salutation to people I encounter on the street and whatnot from “Good Day” to “Fuck Off.” I bet I have an annual 1 in 22,727 chance of being right on target. (Especially if I happen to visit Cantor’s district at some point. Ahhh, the cherry blossoms …)

    More seriously, the earlier temblor this week in Colorado, another region where they are supposed to be quite rare, does not soothe the nerves any either. (Or maybe not so rare after all. Here’s a USGS preliminary report from 2002 about a then-recent cluster in the same area, around the town of Trinidad.)

  9. Margaret Kronewitter says:

    Scanned the Chernobyl Report by the NY Academy of Science today. We are making Home Planet uninhabitable. GREEN ENERGY is the only ANSWER. That Chernobyl CoverUP has me soooooo DOWN. Take zeolite.

  10. pdaly says:

    Earthquake epicenter in VA? Perhaps too much (GWT) money was piling up in Virginia. Time to spread it around–for the safety of the population.

  11. scribe says:

    @emptywheel: No. There are two main sources of this “range”.

    First, it was not possible when these plants were being designed, back in the 60s and early 70s, to model the behavior of the structures or the underlying soil/bedrock with anything apporaching the accuracy or precision (two different things) we are capable of today. Multiple computer simulation runs were hugely time-consuming and expensive beyond all belief. And way primitive. (When I went to engineering school about the time these plants were coming on line, we were still using punch cards for some of our computer work. And making punch cards consumed hours. Take a look at the original “Star Wars” – the tiny bits of computer imagery in the spaceship gunsights were the height of high-tech, circa 1976.) It’s the flip side of the frequently-noted (a decade ago) fact that the lunar lander had less computer power than an econobox car. Yes, you could go to the moon on a tiny computer, but you also could not do computer modeling of nuke plants and their soils/bedrock. Plus, they didn’t have the benefit of knowing as much as we do today (from post hoc computer analysis of seismic data of distant quakes captured by the now-closed seismic stations – kind of like a distant searchlight illuminating the local landscape) about the bedrock conditions in that area.

    Second, the Richter scale number is a measure of total energy released. Kind of like saying a nuclear explosion had 10 kilotons of explosive power. What the Richter scale number can’t and doesn’t tell, though, is how that energy is released. Is it up-and-down shaking, lateral movement, a combination of them at the same time or in succession or over an extended period? How quickly did the quake release the energy? A long, sustained shaking can be more destructive than a short, but more energetic quake because the long shaking keeps moving the buildings and objects and causes failures that don’t occur in a short, sharp shake. Likewise, vertical shaking can – but doesn’t have to be – more damaging than lateral movement. And that doesn’t even take into account the quake inducing harmonic vibrations in structures, causing damage out of all proportion to energy released.

    So, they couldn’t know what the structure could handle because they couldn’t model it (or its environment) very well and they couldn’t predict what kind of motion they’d get from a quake. Thus, a range.

  12. Marc McKenzie says:

    @earlofhuntingdon: True, but…I mean, what’s wrong with her sending a little message to the Repub jerks in DC?

    Still, one would have to tip their hat to the cosmic poetic justice that this occurred near Cantor’s district. But I don’t think he’s going to change his stripes any time soon….

  13. Bay State Librul says:


    A friend from Madison, Wisconsin send me

    “You sure that wasn’t Big Papi trying to steal home?

  14. Gregg says:

    Funny (ha!) enough, I just wrote about the seismic safety of US plants last week. Yeah, most of the top 10 most vulnerable are on the east coast. Also, how they calculate most vulnerable is multi-factored–it depends on frequency of seismic activity, type and depth of fault, distance from fault, along with reactor design. What is not clear is whether it also includes cooling system design. I’m still digging, but some of what I am finding suggests it does not–or at least that when the NRC rates a facility as earthquake safe, it is considering the ability of the containment vessel to withstand the tremor, but not necessarily the cooling system.

    This has become a bit of a big deal, since it is now coming to light that the first meltdown at Fukushima started BEFORE the tsunami, likely because the cooling system sprung leaks in the quake. Thus, even if the power supply is not interrupted, the cooling systems–and this would possibly apply to both the reactor and the spent fuel pools–could still fail after a quake.

    I’ve got more questions out to folks on this, but some are on vacation. . . till then, last week’s post with some of this info:–-august-19-2011-japan-nuclear-crisis-continues-highlighting-more-potential-dangers-in-us/

  15. rugger9 says:

    The PWR design is generally safer than the BWR Fukushima and the graphite Chernobyl units. I wouldn’t be surprised (as a former USN nuke) that there were dropped rods due to the shaking, and protocol requires scrams, otherwise the energy generation is skewed with possible localized excess heating. If all plants went off line that way, the diesels were expected, and they are bringing their units back on line once they confirm plant integrity. This takes some time, on the order of a couple hours for the pipe checks.

    With that said, the comments about modeling are correct, and Cantor’s faction’s cost cutting on getting facts [which might stop them from some of their plans, see how the GOP always claims “there’s no evidence to support” whatever protective actions are in play] means that the knowledge level isn’t where it could be.

    Geiger counters are cheap for general detection, multichannel analyzers can separate the energies (and nuclides) on more advanced detection systems (scintillation, etc.) and thus identify nuclides.

  16. MadDog says:

    CBS News had a map up of eastern US nuclear plants and mentioned that a number of them were to be inspected regarding the quake.

    Included in the inspection were the 2 plants in Western Michigan.

    From the PloegBlog, those Western Michigan nuclear plants are just down the road from you and are:

    “Palisades” Nuclear Power Station – South Haven, MI

    Donald C. “Cook” Nuclear Generating Station – Bridgman, MI

    If we hear a sizzling or hissing noise here at Rancho Emptywheel, or EW’s next post glows in the dark, I’m gonna hide under the covers.

  17. Thad Beier says:

    The reactor, and perhaps more interestingly, the reservoir, is built right over a known fault line. There was a court case back in the mid 70’s trying to stop the plant, and the court considered, but rejected, the idea that building a large reservoir over a fault line might “reactivate” the fault.

    There is considerable speculation that some of the recent large, devastating quakes in China were due to the added weight of the water from new reservoirs.

    Of course, this is only true if you live in “reality”.

  18. scribe says:

    @Thad Beier: The most common “cause” of small quakes in the Northeast (and Scandanavia, for that matter) is isostatic rebound, i.e., the earth rising back to its “normal” level after the pressure of the last ice sheet disappeared when the Ice Age ended.

  19. Porter51 says:

    God, by most definitions, does not hate, period. God, by most definitions, loves all his creation, even us “libruls.”

  20. P J Evans says:

    @Thad Beier:
    That wasn’t very smart.
    They stopped a plant from being built at Bodega Bay because it would have been right next to a very large fault. Construction had actually started: the reactor was going to be here.

  21. P J Evans says:

    @Thad Beier:
    There were earthquakes in this size range when the reservoir behind Oroville Dam was filled. That was around 1970. It’s a big reservoir, and the faults had been inactive for a long time. (The quakes surprised geologists.)

  22. lefty665 says:

    Big budget cuts in Virginia happened in George Allen’s administration, ’94-’98. VDOT still has not recovered from the slaughter. Cant was in the lege ’92-’01. Look for evil in the overlap with Allen. Lake Anna is shallow, so it is not equivalent to Oroville. That doesn’t mean it’s uninvolved.

    FYI, Since Fukushima I’ve been trying to get Hanover County (adjoining Louisa and downwind of North Anna) to release its Nuclear disaster plan. They won’t cough it up. Lots of excuses and dodges.

  23. John Q. Public says:

    Excellent Article. Let’s hope Eric Cantor takes the time to read this and realize just what an ass he has been. If he doesn’t realize it, then I hope the voters in his district are kept informed so that they can make an intelligent voting decision in 2012 and remove him from public office.

  24. Don Bacon says:

    Did Fracking Cause the freak Virginia Earthquake?

    How Fracking Causes Earthquakes
    by Stuart Bramhall (extract)

    According to geologists, it isn’t the fracking itself that is linked to earthquakes, but the re-injection of waste salt water (as much as 3 million gallons per well) deep into rock beds.

    Braxton County West Virginia (160 miles from Mineral) has experienced a rash of freak earthquakes (eight in 2010) since fracking operations started there several years ago. According to geologists fracking also caused an outbreak of thousands of minor earthquakes in Arkansas (as many as two dozen in a single day). It’s also linked to freak earthquakes in Texas, western New York, Oklahoma, and Blackpool, England (which had never recorded an earthquake before).

  25. brendanx says:

    Tthose nuclear reactors near the epicenter are built to withstand an earthquake of magnitude…6.2. And that is estimated to happen only six times per 10,000 years. So they’re only built to withstand events likely in our lifetimes. I don’t know about the earthquake-hurricane combination (Irene, cough), but that’s clearly not merely unlikely, but, probably deemed really, really unlikely by their standards.

  26. emptywheel says:

    Btw, Eric Cantor was on a big boondoggle in Israel, so he missed the quake. But he has wasted not time in guaranteeing his constitutents will get the federal aid he tried to withold from Joplin, MO.

  27. rugger9 says:

    Totally not surprising, and it should be pointed out in the town halls he holds (if any), perhaps we need to take up a collection to send people in since tickets are what’s needed now to see the GOP reps.

    The fracking angle needs to be pursued, since it is the kind of thing that “greases the skids” towards earthquakes.

  28. konst says:

    I realize that most people are scientifically challenged, though not totally scientifically illiterate, but seriously get a grip on reality.

    I mean if you have reality based critiques of nuclear energy I’d love to read them but, POGO?? seriously?!

    Here’s some alternative source of the events

    Despite it being a nuclear advocacy site, use your scientific knowledge to accept or critique it’s assessments not fear, uncertainty, and disinfo (FUD).

  29. emptywheel says:

    @konst: Sorry, are you saying that we need (or should want) nukes but shouldn’t have government? Because this post is about government.

    And aside from the fact that w/o govt, we would never have nukes (bc no one would insure it), saying we need nukes w/o regulation or scientific monitoring for it is, well, nuts.

  30. konst says:


    From a basic libertarian/anarcho-capitalist point of view, yes I’m saying we shouldn’t have government but I didn’t address that in my comment above.

    What I meant was if someone is critical of nuclear energy then let them give a real critique or the emotional reasons why they’re afraid of them not some organizations which are just disinfo agents.
    I’m not criticizing you but organizations like POGO, Friends of the Earth, NRDC which just spread FUD masquerading as valid scientific critique organizations.

    Regarding nuclear plants, of course I would want monitoring firms but ask yourself this:
    do you want government monitoring firms accountable to corrupt governments/plants-operators or do you want independent firms accountable to you with open financial records and open reports?

    How often do you see govt regulators give corporations a free pass with no accountability to the people who it matters most to?

    Note: I am pro nuclear energy though I think current plants are very inefficient. I think 4th generation plants like the LFTR are better, cleaner, less expensive, and much more efficient.
    Note2: Dr. James Hanson is also in favor of 4th gen plants.

  31. konst says:

    Correction in my comment #49:
    “do you want government monitoring firms not accountable to the people and corrupt governments regulators in bed with plants-operators or do you want independent firms accountable to you with open financial records and open reports?

  32. Michael R. Brown says:

    Did ANY of you actually read the link to the site in the article? It disproves the article’s contentions! “Some of these instruments were stationed around the North Anna Nuclear Power plant, but in the 1990’s, due to budget cuts, most of the North Anna sensors were taken off line.” *Most* – not *all*. And those were Virginia Tech’s general research instruments – an observatory’s seismographs, not the nuke plant’s safety seismic sensors. This is an irrational moral panic in action. Note that the article did not even actually state that there were any safety consequences to “all seismographs” being taken offline. The political/economic goal is obvious, and the venom all over the web at the need for budgetary sanity speaks for itself. Some crazies have even related this non-existent unstated danger to the Tea Party. Scary irrationality, disregard of fact, inability to think critical, and bitter clinging hate. :(

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