Can U.S. Power Plants Withstand Nature's Fury?

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SURRY COUNTY, Virginia -- Japan's nuclear crisis has people around the world once again questioning the safety of nuclear power.

The mind-boggling images from Japan have raised concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants.

With a number of nuclear reactors sitting on earthquake danger zones in the U.S., nuclear experts wonder about the safety of the plants in the country.

However, measures have been set in motion to protect American communities.

Richard Zuercher is the spokesman of Dominion Power, the owner of a nuclear power station in Surry, Va. Surry is the home of two of the 104 operating nuclear reactors in the United States, which supply 20 percent of the country's electricity.

Zuercher has been fielding a lot of telephone calls in light of what has happened in Japan, but he told CBN News that Surry is safe.

"Safety in the nuclear industry in the United States is a real success story," Zuercher said. "The stations are very safe. Three Mile Island was the wakeup call to the industry. There's been a lot of thought into what happened there."

"We view nuclear energy as a very important component to the overall portfolio we're trying to build for a clean energy future," said Daniel Poneman, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy.

However, at least 22 of the nuclear reactors at American power plants are located in earthquake danger zones, including an area in the center of the country -- the infamous New Madrid Seismic Zone.

Still, Gregory Jaczco, the chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said U.S. plants are prepared for such an emergency.

"All of our plants are designed to withstand significant natural phenomenon like earthquakes, tornadoes and tsunamis," Jaczco said.

A containment building is one of the protective measures used at the Surry facility and at other nuclear power plants across the country and around the world.

Containment buildings consist of massive steel-reinforced concrete walls that are around 4.5 feet thick. The nuclear reactors are located inside these buildings.

The concrete domes at the Surry power station are the containment buildings. They protect the entire nuclear power generation system.

Zuercher said the nuclear industry and other experts believe these structures provide protection from not only nature's fury, but also from terrorist attacks.

"They contend that these containment buildings can probably withstand an impact from a large jetliner," Zeurcher said.

Officials said another line of defense is the pumping station, such as the one at the D.C. Cook Nuclear Power Plant in Bridgeman, Mich. The water source for the plant can cool down the facility's reactors in an emergency -- at the rate of about 900 gallons per minute.

Other safety features include a 30-foot sea wall at a nuclear plant in California to protect against tsunami waves.

At the Surry power station, barriers have been installed to prevent flooding in the event of a hurricane.

"The bottom line is -- we as a nuclear industry in the United States will go over with a fine tooth comb what happened in Japan," said Shane Lies, nuclear plant manager for D.C. Cook Nuclear Power Plant. "And we will glean every lesson that we can, and we will make sure that the reactors in this country which are already safe can even be more safe."

However, the nuclear crisis in Japan -- where explosions likely cracked the critical containment buildings -- has critics questioning if a nuclear plant can ever be built strong enough to survive certain danger zones.

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Mark Martin

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Mark Martin is a reporter and anchor at CBN News, covering various issues from military matters to alternative fuels. Mark has reported internationally in the Middle East and traveled to Bahrain to cover stories on the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkMartinCBN and "like" him at Facebook.com/MarkMartinCBN.