News & Politics

Threats to DC’s Economy: Market crashes. Pandemics. Nuclear Accidents. Wait, What Was That Last One?

Three Mile Island. Photograph by Flickr user Ted Van Pelt

Forget fretting over the price of eggs at Whole Foods, the Red Line single-tracking, or traffic during the pope’s visit. According to the London-based insurance market Lloyd’s, Washington should worry a lot more about the cost of potential nuclear accidents.

In fact, DC’s GDP is the seventh-most at-risk to potential nuclear accidents among the 301 major cities that Lloyd’s assessed. The Washington area is within 100 miles of five nuclear power plants, and the insurance market estimates $46 million of the city’s economic output could be lost to nuclear accidents over the next decade. (Nuclear accidents are the 12th-most-serious potential threat to DC, according to Lloyd’s, lower than a market crash or a human pandemic, but higher than heatwaves or terrorism.)

Among the nuclear power plants in the area: Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, home to the most serious accident in the history of US commercial nuclear power plant operation (130 miles from the center of DC), and the North Anna plants in Louisa County, Virginia, located only ten miles north of the 2011 East Coast earthquake epicenter and 90 miles from DC. As recently as this past Monday, tremors shook Louisa County.

But what are the chances that a nuclear accident will actually affect Washington?

“Vanishingly small,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesperson Scott Burnell says. If radioactive material were to leave a plant, Burnell says, the potential for water and food contamination, or other significant effects, is unexpected beyond a 50-mile range. The closest plant is the Calvert Cliffs plant, about 45 miles away.

The worst-case scenario for Washington, according to Burnell: Commuting might be affected.

“We might have to see private business and government use the sorts of telecommuting options that that normally you would use during a blizzard or some sort of severe weather event,” Burnell says. “You might see some restriction of movement.”

Dave Lochbaum, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Nuclear Safety Project, says that to the extent Washington is vulnerable, it’s partly because of its downwind location.

“Washington is ringed by nuclear power plants,” Lochbaum says. “It’s more likely to face that radioactive plume or that radioactive cloud that drifts by than other cities where they just happen to be normally located upwind of the facility.”

But Lochbaum, too, says the NRC’s high safety standards make it very unlikely that Washington will have any such “very bad day.”

Talia Mindich
Editorial Fellow