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The risk that an earthquake would cause a severe accident at a U.S. nuclear plant is greater than previously thought, 24 times as high in one case, according to an AP analysis of preliminary government data.
After the March earthquake in Japan that caused the biggest nuclear crisis since Chernobyl, NRC staffers fretted in emails that the agency's understanding of earthquake risk for existing reactors was out of date.
The U.S. nuclear industry may not be fully ready, either. Current regulations don't require the NRC to make sure nuclear reactors are still capable of dealing with a new understanding of the threats.
It's not just earthquakes. It is all types of events, including floods, tornadoes and hurricanes, said an NRC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about the agency's recent seismic work.
The threat came into sharp focus last week, when shaking from the largest earthquake to hit Virginia in 117 years appeared to exceed what the North Anna nuclear power plant northwest of Richmond was built to sustain
Just how many nuclear power plants are more vulnerable won't be determined until all operators recalculate their own seismic risk based on new assessments by geologists, something the agency plans to request later this year.
The NRC and the industry say reactors are safe as they are, for now. But emails obtained in a more than 11,000-page records request by The Associated Press show that NRC experts were worried privately this year that plants needed stronger safeguards to account for the higher risk assessments.