The ghost of a soft-spoken classical piano player with a knack for penetrating huge engineering reports is watching over the latest problems at Dominion Virginia Power’s North Anna nuclear power station.
Throughout the 1970s, June Allen, who headed the North Anna Environmental Coalition and who died in 2010, fought Virginia Electric & Power Co., Dominion’s predecessor, over what her group claimed was a coverup of the dangers presented by building North Anna near a geological fault line.
Her fears seemed to come true on Aug. 23, when a rare, 5.8 magnitude earthquake with an epicenter a few miles from North Anna shook the area for hundreds of miles. North Anna shut down instantly, but the quake was strong enough to move 25 huge casks used to hold spent nuclear fuel at the site. Each cask weighs 115 tons.
Now, according to an Associated Press investigation, the earthquake dangers faced at North Anna are seen as 38 percent more likely to cause damage to the cores of the two nuclear reactors at the plant than thought 20 years ago. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission believes that a quarter of the commercial reactors in the United States may need modifications to help them withstand earthquakes.
Allen, who graduated from the University of Vermont in 1950 with degrees in music and English and later moved to Virginia, understood the dangers in the early 1970s. She was instrumental in cutting through Vepco’s jargon and the dense and voluminous reports from the utility and federal regulators to raise serious questions about the reactors.
In 1967, when North Anna was on the drawing board, an environmental consulting firm found evidence of fault lines near the planned nuclear site, according to a report prepared in 2005 by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. In 1970, a construction excavation wall collapsed and inspecting geologists reported finding a major fault line. Vepco did not report the fault to federal regulators for three years. Vepco got its license to proceed with the plant.
Allen and other grass-roots activists smelled something rotten. In 1973, they formed their coalition and sued, claiming Vepco was lying about the fault lines. In 1975, the NRC accused Vepco of deleting files listing the fault lines in its reactor applications. The following year, Vepco was fined $32,000 for making materially false statements in its North Anna application.
Vepco didn’t seem to know what to do with June Allen. They seemed flabbergasted with the soft-spoken woman who showed up at hearings and asked penetrating questions. Vepco’s chairman is said to have once stopped a proceeding, pointed his finger, and proclaimed with indignation, “There is Mrs. Allen.”
Sadly, June Allen has been proved clairvoyant. The unusual 5.8 level quake approaches the level that North Anna was built to withstand. Dominion is considering adding a third unit at North Anna. As it proceeds with its plans, and worries about upgrades at the two older units, Mrs. Allen’s ghost will be somewhere in the hearing rooms.