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Quake does little to shake town's nuclear faith

Sep 4, 2011, 10:14 a.m.

By Ayesha Rascoe and Lily Kuo

MINERAL, Virginia (Reuters) - In a village of about 500 where nearly everyone knows someone who works at the local nuclear plant, the recent historic earthquake created more punch lines than new concerns about the safety of their community.

More than a week after an unusual 5.8-magnitude quake rocked the East Coast and shut down the North Anna Nuclear plant, the local diner -- the Lake Anna Smokehouse & Grill -- was selling half-pound "quake burgers" with a side of homemade "nuclear" barbecue sauce.

"I wish I could tell you we are at the edge of the world blowing up, but it just ain't the case," said Ed Blount, leaning on a counter at a gift shop he owns on the shore of man-made Lake Anna, created for the nearby nuclear plant that has yet to restart.

The quake may have caused serious structural damage to schools and homes, but Blount, like many other life-long residents of Mineral, says it did not shake his faith in the safety of Dominion's power station.

"Everyone would know immediately if something was wrong," he said. A store employee showed off a design for a new T-shirt logo: "I survived Lake Shake 2011."

VISITORS IN TOWN

The North Anna plant is under extra scrutiny after initial reviews showed the tremor may have rattled the site at a force above the plant's design parameters.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission dispatched a special team of inspectors to the site, and has said the 1,806-megawatt station will not be allowed to restart until Dominion can show it is safe.

The company says it expects to be able to do that without making expensive retrofits before restarting plant, and on Friday showed journalists signs of what it deemed to be minor damage, some of which has already been repaired.

"I feel safer here than I do driving up and down the highway," said Michael Duffey, who handles internal communications at the plant, during the tour.

It shut down just as it was designed to do when the quake hit, and its employees sprang into action -- something they regularly train for, Jason Russell said.

Russell was a unit supervisor in the plant's control room when the quake hit.

"Earthquake or otherwise, once the reactor trips and you recognize loss of off-site power, the response is really the same," Russell said. "We proceeded as we normally would."

Still, the 30-year-old supervisor said when he went home after his shift that night, the rush of adrenaline from the day made it hard to sleep. He found himself wide awake at 2 a.m. after five hours of rest.

"I was pretty wound up," he said.

FRIENDS ON THE INSIDE

Despite a safety record the industry touts as exemplary, nuclear power plants have seen a spike in public attention since March, when an earthquake and tsunami swamped a nuclear plant in Japan.

The U.S. nuclear regulator is considering overhauling its rules, and will require each plant to run new models to see whether up-to-date earthquake risks are cause for any retrofits to aging plants, most of which were built in the 1970s.

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