Visualizing the Virginia Earthquake (and its aftershocks)

Visualizing the Virginia Earthquake (and its aftershocks)The Virginia Earthquake generated a lot of media coverage and interest because of both the magnitude of the seismic event (5.8) and the fact that it happened in an area that historically does not have large earthquakes. It was felt up and down the East Coast of the US, and even shook our offices here in Pittsburgh, PA.

One of the other parts of this story is that the epicenter of the quake was within a few miles of a major nuclear reactor, known as the North Anna Power Station, which is operated by Dominion. According to Reuters, the plant lost power and three diesel generators were required to cool the reactor, while according to the report, “a fourth diesel unit failed“. This caused me to immediately think about the Fukoshima nuclear disaster which also started as a result of an earthquake.

Given the failure of one of the diesel generators, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where others also failed and cooling of the reactors was not possible (as happened at Fukushima). To understand the potential impacts of this, I find it useful to turn to data visualization. I used our Rhiza Insight software to import the previous 24 hours of seismic data from the USGS and then overlaid another dataset that we already had in our system for the location of nuclear reactors in the US. The result is below:

Some interesting things that I see in this map:

  • There have already been a bunch of fairly sizable aftershocks. The 5.8 earthquake is not an isolated event. It will be interesting to see how this data evolves over the next several days.
  • Richmond and Charlotte are two major cities that would, under a similar evacuation scenario as Fukoshima, would have to be evacuated. According to the US Census Bureau, there are over 200,000 people in the city of Richmond, VA alone.
  • If you zoom out on the map a bit, you’ll see there are a lot of other nuclear power plants in the region. What other seismic surprises will the earth have for them, and will we be prepared for a Fukoshima-like catastrophe?

13 thoughts on “Visualizing the Virginia Earthquake (and its aftershocks)

  1. Good work, Josh.
    It would me nice if there were a distance scale on the map, but I guess that’s not under your control.
    There is a 3km radius “total exclusion zone” and a 30km “evacuation zone” around the Fukushima plant at the moment. It would be interesting to see how that size zone appears on the US map.
    This site shows worldwide earthquakes and demonstrates how unusual this one is.

    And BTW it’s “FUK U SHIMA” :-)

  2. Josh Knauer’s comparison of the Fukoshima Nuclear Disaster in Japan and the Virginia Earthquake’s effect on the North Anna Power Station is irresponsible fantasy reporting. I can not believe this comparison has even been made. The USA is much better equipped and prepared to handle such incidents. Report the facts and forget the drama and fantasies.

    1. Dimitri- One of the four backup generators needed to cool down the two reactors failed. Posing a hypothetical scenario based on recent historical events is not irresponsible. You of course don’t have to agree with it, which is fine with me. To claim the US is better prepared to deal with such incidents than the Japan is actually also an arguable point, probably best left for another thread somewhere else.

    2. @Dimitri (no surname)
      Sadly, Josh may be right.

      Earthquakes of this size (M5.8) occur every week or so in Japan, and hardly ever is there any damage whatsoever. Even in the Fukushima earthquake, the majority of the damage was not from the quake but from the tsunami.

      Try the SEISMON link above and see the data by clicking through on any location you prefer.

      The Fukushima earthquake was (if I’ve got my arithmetic right) roughly 10,000 times stronger than this one.
      To put it another way, the VA earthquake was 10,000 times WEAKER, but STILL one of the generators broke down.

      To think the US is better prepared is (barring perhaps California) dangerous complacency. It’s not unknown.
      Remember 9/11?
      couldn’t happen….

  3. Can you link to where you read or where told the Lake Anna plant lost power? Other than taking your word for it, how do we know this happened?

  4. Hey Josh,

    It looks like in many cases there are “duplicate” power plants right on top of each other. Do you know what that reflects in the underlying data? If you click on the Beaver Valley one, they have different “docket numbers”, whatever that means…

    Do you know if this is just two different administrative identifiers for the same thing, or if that indicates that there are two reactor cores at the same site, or what?


    1. Good question, and it had me confused for a while until I dug into it. Each point on the map represents a reactor. There frequently are multiple reactors within one facility. The data would likely be better if it represented facilities, and then displayed the aggregate number of reactors at each facility. I didn’t have time to do that when I originally imported it.

  5. Thanks Josh, for this analysis. My daughter just moved to Charlottesville, Virginia (often confused with Charlotte, NC). I had been trying to get a sense of the location and scale of the earthquakes. And, of course, the location of the nuclear power plants.
    Thank you for compiling this information.

  6. The debate about the comparative size of the quake is interesting but surely the concern is that any earthquake near a nuclear reactor is worrying. Perhaps the argument should be about the inherent dangers of building nuclear power plants near population centers or even whether they should remain open given the dangers. There were safety measures in Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, they failed and look at the results. Is Fukushima a US translation from the Japanese or would they spell it with an ‘o’?

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