The 5.8 magnitude Virginia earthquake flashed a danger signal to millions of Americans on the Eastern Seaboard about nuclear power plants, said Lynn Sykes, a prominent seismologist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

This was an historic earthquake for the East Coast because unlike those in California, there was damage over such a wide distance, Sykes said in an interview. While it appears nobody was killed or injured and property damage was light, the biggest takeaway was the shutdown of two of Dominion Power's atomic plants in Virginia.

Electrical power failed there, Sykes said, so they went into standby mode, much like the Tokyo Electric Power plant in Fukushima, Japan did during the March tsunami and earthquake.

Sykes, the co-developer of the Pacheco-Sykes catalog of large global earthquakes, said it's too early to determine what has happened at the two North Anna plants and said nearby residents should be cautious.

Just about all of the atomic power plants on the Eastern Seaboard were not designed to withstand a major earthquake, he said, especially the two Indian Point plants operated by Entergy in Buchanan, N.Y., north of New York City.

Sykes said he has protested to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about the Indian Point plants and others on strict scientific grounds. But the NRC refused to take new circumstances into account, including threat of a terrorist attack as well as seismic evidence.

Another plant that could be damaged by a major quake is the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in Seabrook, N.H., operated by the FPL Group, where construction began in 1976. FPL has sought to renew its license through 2050.

Sykes said he argued against that plant before construction began because of a 6.0-magntitude earthquake in 1755 off the New Hampshire coast.

The Tuesday Virginia earthquake proves once again that such a quake could happen again, Sykes said.

The Lamont-Doherty seismologist said he was pleased New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned against renewal of the Indian Point licenses. But he said that because the plants produce electricity valued over $2 million a day, Entergy will strenuously argue to keep it open.

Sykes, 74, is Higgins Professor Emeritus of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he is an expert in nuclear verification and served on the U.S. negotiating team for the threshold test ban treaty with the Soviet Union in 1974.

He also has studied extensively earthquakes in California and Alaska.