Burch: Is TVA on shaky ground?

Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 10:05pm
By Michael R. Burch

Could Tennesseans be at risk of a disaster like the one currently facing Fukushima Dai-ichi? According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the fourth-most-likely nuclear power plant to suffer core damage and a subsequent release of radiation is right here in Tennessee.

Surprisingly, nuclear power plants built close to active faults, such as those on the California coastline, have a lower risk of damage from earthquakes, because they were built with major earthquakes in mind. But a number of plants built where the chances of earthquakes were previously thought to be minimal now find themselves atop the NRC's list of the ones to be most concerned about. According to the NRC, every American nuclear plant is designed to withstand the strongest earthquake anticipated in its area. But the caveat is that geologists have been revising their estimates of the dangers of earthquakes in states like Tennessee.

The latest estimates come from maps produced by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2008. Of special note, according to the USGS, are the possibilities of major earthquakes along the New Madrid fault, along offshore faults near Charleston, S.C., and in the mountains of East Tennessee. So it turns out that Tennessee is not as earthquake-immune as previously thought.

The new NRC estimates, published in August 2010, are based on the latest USGS maps. These new estimates take the design standards of each plant into account, along with such things as the type of rock or soil the plant is built on.

According to the NRC, the fourth-most-dangerous power plant in the United States is the TVA-operated Sequoyah facility located at Soddy-Daisy, close to Chattanooga. The new per-year estimate of a catastrophic event is 1 in 19,608. The previous estimate was 1 in 102,041. This yields an increase in perceived risk of 520 percent.

If radiation is released from either of the two Sequoyah reactors, Nashvillians could be at risk, depending on factors such as the strength and direction of prevailing winds at the time of the event.

Please keep in mind that this does not mean that a meltdown is imminent. But it seems that some Tennessee nuclear reactors were designed on what may have been faulty, over-optimistic assumptions. Rather than planning for an absolute worst-case scenario, TVA planned only for a “we don’t think Tennessee is likely to have a major earthquake” scenario. Should we trust the bean counters at TVA, or should we demand an immediate, thorough investigation of the risk to Tennesseans, in light of the latest geologic evidence?

Michael R. Burch is a Nashville-based editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry and other “things literary,” at www.thehypertexts.com.

23 Comments on this post:

By: yogiman on 3/18/11 at 4:45

Vast knowledge has been gained since the beginning of the nuclear programs. Much is left to be gained.

It now seems imperative studies take place to determine what can and might happen with what we now have.

Advanced knowledge is always better to know than past knowledge. Past knowledge has been learned to be devastating.

By: gdiafante on 3/18/11 at 6:00

"Past knowledge has been learned to be devastating."

Well, at least yours has.

By: yogiman on 3/18/11 at 6:09

Good morning, gdiafantior.

Good to see you have woken up. May I stupidly ask what your references are? Just curious. But rest assured, I won't try to equate my brain with yourin.

By: gdiafante on 3/18/11 at 6:11

What is yourin?

My references are all your past posts. Enjoy.

By: yogiman on 3/18/11 at 7:41

Well, gdiafante,

I tried to politely phrase my comment to you. Yourin was written to be your urine in your brain. I have no desire to compare my brain with yours with your urine in it.

By: gdiafante on 3/18/11 at 7:47

Really yogi...saying that I have pee in my brain...I would expect that from my 5 year old, but a supposedly educated, mature man?

By: Captain Nemo on 3/18/11 at 7:57

Good morning


By: Captain Nemo on 3/18/11 at 7:58

There has not been enough seismic active of the mid-continent fault zones to really understand what would take place. These faults line may work under a different set of rules and could be more unpredictable.

The last big quake took place 200 years ago and the country was not heavily populated and there were no reactors that would cause damage to millions of people. The damage today would be gargantuan and extraordinarily deadly.


By: Loner on 3/18/11 at 9:41

Another fine article by Michael Burch.

Mike wrote, "...it seems that some Tennessee nuclear reactors were designed on what may have been faulty, over-optimistic assumptions." That's probably an understatement. One wonders if pork-barrel politics trumped hard science in determining the locations for the nation's nuclear plants. Special interest lobbying played a role, no doubt.

The Bellefonte nuclear plant, another TVA facility, located in Hollywood Alabama, is also relatively close to Nashville.

What happens if a dam breaks and the riverside nuclear reactors experience a flash flood....I reckon the experts have factored that in.

Seems prudent that the most dangerous reactors should be deactivated first....but, whse ox is to be gored? It's politics, baby.

By: gdiafante on 3/18/11 at 9:55

First, 1 in 19K is odds that I would take. Second, if everyone were really cautious about an earthquake here, why aren't they asking for better building codes?

If the threat is real, why aren't new buildings and homes required to be built accordingly?

Ironically, when Haiti had that major earthquake I don't remember anyone complaining about it then...did they just build that plant and discover the fault line a few days ago?

This is more the result of a 24 news cycle and fear mongering. Next week, when a pothole is discovered on I-24, we'll all be discussing how our infrastructure is falling apart.

By: Captain Nemo on 3/18/11 at 10:10


What the mid-continent faults are capable of doing is unknown at this time. The 1812 New Madrid quake was estimated at 9 or greater. The TVA reactor or only built for a 7 magnitude quake.

The Titanic was advertised as the ship that can’t sink and yet it did.

“Titanic was designed by some of the most experienced engineers, and used some of the most advanced technologies available at the time. It was a great shock to many that, despite the extensive safety features, Titanic sank, and the fact that it sank on its maiden voyage added to the particularly ironic nature of the tragedy.”

By: Captain Nemo on 3/18/11 at 10:24


Here is a link that may explain the completive of a mid-continent fault and what they are capable of doing.

By: gdiafante on 3/18/11 at 10:30

Nemo, my point is that the nuclear plant existed on that same fault line after the Haiti earthquake, why was there no outcry?

And Birch asks why the plant wasn't built for the possiblity of a major earthquake...um...people bitch and complain about paying teachers $50K a year, do you really think they'd want to fork out public money for something that is about as likely to happen as a meteor destroying Memphis??

By: pswindle on 3/18/11 at 10:37

We need to shut down or do away with all nuclear plants. All it takes is one accident and we will be another Russia or Japan. Three mile island should have been a wake up call for us. Japan will never be the same. We will destroy our earth with nuclear. We have to stop the Senators who are beholden to the nuclear companies. I am scared with all of the big trucks that are transporting all of the nuclear waste across our state with some stopping at Oak Ridge. has the potential of creating a problem too big to handle.. We are taking waste from other countries. This is one of George Bush's lame ideas. VP Gore would never let waste be transported across our state, he said, "All we needed is was one mistake." Who really loves our state? I now know that TN has sold out to the highest bidder. Thanks Sen. Alexandrea for your bright ideas about how safe nuclear is. Did anyone hear him say that TN was in no danger from nuclear plants?

By: gdiafante on 3/18/11 at 10:37

It's always interesting how every fault line in the world is suddenly on the verge of activity after a large earthquake.

Too bad the people arguing about the liklihood of these minor fault lines didn't pay attention to the larger one that did move.

By: yogiman on 3/18/11 at 10:56


If Alexander is smart enough to investigate and find Barry legally eligible for the Oval Office, surely he is smart enough to sell us out to the nuclear industry.

Placing the Senate under popular vote was a major mistake. The 17th Amendment should never have been passed and should be repealed.

With the senators being elected as the representatives by popular vote simply makes the Senate an extension of the House.

By: brrrrk on 3/18/11 at 10:56

For what it's worth, nuclear energy creation is like walking through a mine field.... even if you know where all the mines are, all it takes is one misstep and BOOM!!! The risks far outweigh the advantages.

By: Captain Nemo on 3/18/11 at 10:56


Fault lines are always on the move. It is the nature of the phenomenon. It is what makes Earth livable, so we humans can screw it up.

And you are correct about the people not paying attention. The very fault line in Japan was warned about last year.

Japanese government was 'warned that nuclear plants could not withstand quake'



Japanese professor warned of nuke catastrophe in 2007


By: brrrrk on 3/18/11 at 10:57

Who knew that yogi was an advocate of the "House of Lords"

By: brrrrk on 3/18/11 at 11:03

yogiman said

"Good morning, gdiafantior.

Good to see you have woken up. May I stupidly ask what your references are? Just curious. But rest assured, I won't try to equate my brain with yourin."

Hmm, yogi wants "references" while seems to be too lazy (or ignorant) to provide any (references) to back up his own positions... yep, he's a tea bagger.

By: Captain Nemo on 3/18/11 at 11:04

Maybe it is The Lord of the Flies.

By: Captain Nemo on 3/18/11 at 11:13

Yourins is hillbilly for yours. LOL

By: spooky24 on 3/19/11 at 5:46

The simple fact remains that the largest solar energy farm in the world in China where it takes a month for it to produce the same amount of energy that unit 2 at Browns Ferry produces in one afternoon.

So, we are stuck with it for now.