By Paula C. Squires
There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the near meltdown of Japan’s tsunami-wrecked nuclear power plant, but abandoning nuclear power should not be one of them. As Japan continued to struggle to gain control over its plant at Fukushima Daiichi that has been the reaction in Virginia from the halls of Congress, the Virginia governor’s office, the state’s largest utility and academia.
“It is irrational to rush to judgment and blame the effect of a major natural disaster on an industry which is actually so beneficial to this country and the whole world,” said Alireza Haghighat, a professor in Virginia Tech’s nuclear engineering program, referring to the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that stuck northeastern Japan on March 9. Instead, he added, the nuclear industry should assist Japan and learn from its experience.
Particularly in a state like Virginia where the nuclear industry has a strong presence, “It is important that the industry maintains its momentum in design, licensing and operation of a new generation of nuclear reactors,” said Haghighat, a fellow of the American Nuclear Society and chairman of the board of the Southeast Universities Nuclear Reactors Institute for Science and Education, a nonprofit that supports the advancement of nuclear education in the southeastern U.S. “Areva NP and B&W should learn from Japanese experience, and if necessary consider changes in their designs.”
Paris-based Areva and Charlotte, N.C.-based Babcock & Wilcox have nuclear operations in Lynchburg. Both companies have responded to the crisis with offers to provide technical assistance, and Arveva has sent supplies, including radiation detection equipment. Virginia also has two nuclear plants in Louisa and Surry counties. Dominion Virginia Power, which operates the two nuclear plants, has applied to build a third nuclear reactor at its Lake Anna Power Station in Louisa. However, the company needs a partner to help finance the project. “We don’t have an equity partner yet. We want to keep the option open to meet future demand,” said company spokesman Jim Norvelle.
Dominion expects the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to rule on its application in 2013. “Then it becomes a business decision, and we’ll have to decide if we want to go through with it,” Norvelle said.
Frank Settle, a chemistry professor at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, expects the Japanese crisis to weaken funding for new U S. nuclear plants. “Nuclear power plants are very expensive to build — about $10 billion a pop. The utilities don’t have that kind of capital. So they have to go to the investment community, and the investment community was already a little bit squirrelly about taking risks with nuclear power. I think this will make partners hard to come by in this environment.”
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell doesn’t want the state to abandon the construction of new nuclear reactors. McDonnell has pushed to make Virginia the energy capital of the East coast and supports nuclear as a part of the state’s overall mix. In an interview with the Washington Post on March 18, he said: “I believe it would be most unwise to let this unprecedented tragedy lead to the retraction or abandonment of the American nuclear energy industry. Nuclear energy is clean, reliable, affordable and critical to generating the volume of electricity we need to power our homes and businesses and grow our economy.”
The state’s two nuclear plants generate about one third of Virginia’s electricity. “They have multiple redundant systems to provide backup electrical power,” McDonnell said. “The stations were also analyzed against worst-case acts of nature, such as earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, and modified as necessary to protect them. There are 19 emergency drills scheduled for this year.”
President Barack Obama also isn’t backing away from his support of nuclear power. However, in response to what happened in Japan with explosions, fires and radiation now being found in the country’s food and water supplies, he is asking the NRC to conduct a comprehensive review of the safety of the America’s 104 domestic nuclear plants.
House Majority leader Eric Cantor, R-7th, whose district includes Louisa, supports the president’s position. “At this point, we don’t know all the facts in Japan … My commitment is to see what lessons we can learn from the experience in Japan but at the same time recognize that nuclear power is an integral part of the energy mix in this country.”
While officials debate the safety of nuclear power, some Virginia businesses are assessing what ripple effects might flow from Japan’s disaster. In Richmond, specialty insurer Markel Corp. was trying to calculate its earthquake insurance exposure in Japan. Richard R. Whitt III, the company’s president and co-chief operating officer, noted that the areas affected were typically rural and residential. “We mostly write commercial insurance,” he said. “Obviously we are talking to our brokers and they are talking to the insureds where they can.” While information is limited at this time, Whitt has heard projections of insured losses ranging from $15 billion to $35 billion.
It’s been a busy year for Markel. The insurer had exposure to the Australian floods as well as the earthquake in New Zealand. “Last year was a similar year,” Whitt says. “In the first quarter, we had the Chilean earthquake and the earthquake in Haiti. There has been a high frequency of earthquakes in the last year causing large losses of life and economic damage.” Four of the five costliest earthquakes and tsunamis in the last 30 years have occurred within the past 13 months, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Before the Japanese earthquake, insured earthquake losses worldwide dating back to February 2010 totaled an estimated $23 billion.
In another part of the state, Patrick Wales, project manager for Virginia Uranium Inc. in Pittsylvania County, doesn’t foresee an immediate impact on the company’s plans to mine the undeveloped uranium deposits at Coles Hill near Chatham. The company is awaiting the results of two studies on uranium mining, which will be used by the General Assembly in deciding whether to lift a 29-year mining ban. The studies, one regarding health and safety and the other studying the socio-economic impact, are expected to be completed by Dec. 1. “The next session [of the General Assembly] is the earliest something could happen,” said Wales.
The Coles Hill uranium deposit — the largest undeveloped uranium deposit in the U.S. — could be a source for uranium used by nuclear plants. Wales says there is currently a need to increase the mine supply of uranium. “The world currently operates in a 50-million pound deficit; a 180-million pound demand and a 130 million pound primary mine supply. There already exists a need to close that gap regardless if any more nuclear plants are built.”
Five groups opposed to lifting the uranium mining ban want Japan’s nuclear problems to considered in one of the studies being conducted by the National Academy of Sciences. In a filing with the NAS, opponents said study committee members should examine whether the nuclear power crisis will depress uranium prices, making the proposed Pittsylvania operation unsustainable after mining has begun.
Virginia Uranium dismissed the filing as a delaying tactic.
Jessica Sabbath and Joan Tupponce contributed to this report.