Chesapeake Energy has a permit to frack just one mile from the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station in Shippingport. Whether that is cause for alarm, experts can’t say.

But one thing is for sure — in the midst of the Marcellus boom, drilling companies are going to keep fracking, pockmarking the earth with their mile-deep wells, blasting away at the subterranean feature that is the Marcellus shale.

As the fracking continues, does anyone, driller or geologist, know what really lies beneath the surface? Does the improbability of seismic activity as a result of fracking become more likely as more wells are drilled?

The new permit granted to Chesapeake is located 1.06 miles from FirstEnergy Corp. nuclear facility in Shippingport. According to DEP records, the permit for an unconventional well was issued to Chesapeake on Oct. 3. Drilling has not yet started.

DEP spokesperson John Poister said there are no required setbacks specifically relating to a required distance between unconventional wells and nuclear facilities, just a blanket regulation requiring a 500-foot setback from any building to an unconventional well.

With more than a mile setback distance, the newly permitted well would be well within the state’s regulations. But Poister did say he is not aware of any other nuclear power station located in an area where shale drilling is occurring.

According to Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, the NRC issued a Regulatory Guide in 1979 to help the industry review potential nuclear sites. But this code didn’t allow for changes in sites that might occur over time — such as the Marcellus shale and resulting fracking boom in Pennsylvania.

“The caveat is that such factors are reviewed and evaluated when initially licensing a nuclear power plant,” Lochbaum said. “The NRC’s regulations are silent about subsequent changes that might reduce or eliminate safety margins that existed when the plants were licensed. In other words, there’s no formal requirement for Beaver Valley to consider the potential impact from activities outside the plant’s fences. There’s no ban against such consideration, but NRC can’t cite the plant for a violation if no evaluations are performed.”

Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson Neil Sheehan said agency regulations focus only on operations within the nuclear site.

“Our regulations do not speak to off-site wells,” he said. “Our focus is on on-site activities.”

In the past, seismic issues have been linked to injection wells, the accepted disposal system for wastewater generated from fracking. In 2011, a 4.0-magnitude earthquake was linked to activity at a Class II injection well in Youngstown, Ohio, operated by D&L Energy.

There is currently little correlation or reported incidents related to fracking and seismic activity. But because fracking is a relatively new technique, there may be aftereffects or dangers that have not yet surfaced.

And seismic activity has been a growing concern for nuclear facilities following the earthquake damage last year to the Fukushima reactor complex in Japan. A 2010 NRC report found that Unit 1 at the Beaver Valley Power Station was ranked the fifth-most vulnerable nuclear reactor in the nation to earthquake damage. FirstEnergy officials said in a past interview that the plant is built to withstand 5.8-magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale. The strongest earthquake registered in Pennsylvania was 5.2 on the Richter scale.

Sheehan pointed out that there is seismic analysis before any nuclear power plant in the United States is designed and built.

In the past, seismic issues have been linked to injection wells, the accepted disposal system for wastewater generated from fracking. In 2011, a 4.0-magnitude earthquake was linked to activity at a Class II injection well in Youngstown, Ohio, operated by D&L Energy.

“The review looks at the most significant historical earthquake in the area, with the plant then constructed to withstand that, with additional margin on top of that,” he said. “I can also tell you that we are now — as part of our post-Fukushima reviews — requiring all plants to perform fresh seismic evaluations. These new assessments will take advantage of advanced modeling and improved data available since the time the plants were built.”

Most seismic issues are linked to injection wells rather than fracking, said Richard Hammack, a scientist at the Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory.

“Hydraulic fracturing near a nuclear plant is probably not a concern under normal circumstances,” he said. “If there is a pre-stress fault that you happen to lubricate there (with fracking solution), that is the only thing that might result in something that is (seismically) measurable.”

Hammack said that in geology, faults are commonly referred to as cracks. Pre-stress faults are “where there are forces pushing, on that fault and the only thing that keeps it from moving is the friction. The stress would have to overcome friction for movement to occur,” he said. “If you inject water into that fault, it reduces that friction. If you inject water with enough pressure, it will expand the fault and reduce the friction.”

However, he said that injection during fracking is very different than that into injection wells. Fracking is a short-term operation, while injection wells are continuously taking in large amounts of water, he said.

Poister said he doesn’t believe there are geological concerns regarding fracking near the nuclear site.

“There would not be concern for a surface facility located near a Marcellus well that is being drilled and fracked a mile or more below the surface,” he said.

(1) comment


Even if it was perfectly safe (which there has been enough recent proof that it is not) is it a responsible risk to even consider FRACTURING THE SHALE near the oldest nebular plant in the US? This industry and the PA administration is getting completely out of control with permitting this type of industrial activity near this power plant. Any kind of accident could put the entire Eastern part of the US in danger. Irresponsible and greedy.......that is what I think of fracking near Shippingport.

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