As the U.S. eastern seaboard begins the weary and expensive process of digging out from the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy, nuclear power plant (NPP) operators are trumpeting their facilities’ withstanding the onslaught from Mother Nature.
But the truth is that they were lucky, and such luck may not extend to the next time a major weather disturbance pummels the U.S. east coast.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, Hurricane Sandy's threatened 34 NPPs. Of the 34 NPPs, ranging along the U.S. Atlantic coastline from South Carolina to Vermont, 24 continued to operate safely and generate electricity, three were safely shut down in New Jersey and New York due to storm conditions, while seven NPPs had previously been shut down for refueling or inspection. The scrammed NPPs were the Nine Mile Point Unit 1 northwest of Syracuse, N.Y., Indian Point Unit 3 about 25 miles north of New York City and the Salem plant's Unit 1 on the Delaware River in New Jersey.
America’s 104 NPPs handled Hurricane Sandy with far less difficulty than other parts of the power grid. And fervently patting themselves on the back were proponents of the nuclear power industry. Nuclear Energy Institute industry lobbying group president Marvin Fertel stated, “Hurricane Sandy once again demonstrates the robust construction of nuclear energy facilities, which are built to withstand extreme flooding and hurricane-force winds that are beyond that historically reported for each area.”
So, how close run was it?
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Well, according to one critic of the Oyster Creek NPP in Forked River in New Jersey, non-profit Fairewinds Energy Education Corp. chief engineer Arnie Gundersen, if the floodwaters at Exelon Corp’s 43-year-old, 636-megawatt Oyster Creek NPP, situated on Barnegat Bay, roughly 40 miles north of Atlantic City, which had earlier been taken out of service for a scheduled refueling, had risen a mere additional six inches higher, they could have knocked out pumps and caused a disaster, a claim that an Exelon spokesman immediately labeled “unequivocally false.” Oyster Creek NPP generates enough electricity to power 600,000 homes.
Rising waters caused the Oyster Creek NPP to escalate to an "alert" from the lowest emergency level, the second-lowest in a four-tiered warning system. Exelon officials blamed a rising tide, wind and storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy for sending more water than normal into the NPP's water intake structure. Oyster Creek NPP, shut down at the time down for maintenance, lost its electrical power from the grid and used backup generators to power the equipment needed to cool its reactor. Had the pumps been rendered offline, then the used uranium rods in the pool could cause the water to boil in about 25 hours without additional coolant, and in a “worst case” scenario the rods could have overheated, risking the eventual release of radiation.
The storm also appeared to knock out emergency sirens used to notify residents who live near the Oyster Creek NPP, according to federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission reports.
But nothing to worry about. According to the NRC, Oyster Creek NPP, which went online in 1969 and is set to close in 2019, is watertight and capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds. Exelon Corp. noted that while power was also disrupted in the Oyster Creek NPP's switchyard, backup diesel generators nevertheless kicked in to provide stable power, and that the NPP had more than two weeks of fuel on hand.
Still, on 29 October the NRC issued a “Preliminary notification of event or unsusal occurrence,” PNO-1-12 007 for Oyster Creek NPP which blandly noted, “the site also experienced a loss of offsite power.”
For those who take a benign view of last week’s events, the NRC, which keeps two resident inspectors at each of the 104 U.S. NPPs, sent additional inspectors with satellite communications systems not only to Oyster Creek NPP, but eight other NPPs projected to lie in Hurricane Sandy’s path in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Connecticut. When winds greater than 75 miles per hour are expected, U.S.NPPs are required to shut down because of the possibility that the surrounding electrical grid will fail, forcing them to rely on backup diesel generators to power its cooling systems. In August 2011 when Hurricane Irene savaged the U.S. Atlantic coast Oyster Creek NPP was shut down for this reason. According to Nuclear Energy Institute spokesman Tom Kauffman, "This is nothing new—these plants have been through it all before, tornadoes, high winds, flooding conditions."
No doubt the Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s executives made similar soothing noises about the six-reactor Fukushima Daiichi NPP complex, until Mother Nature disabused them of their confidence on 11 March 2011.
So, New Jersey residents dodged the bullet – until perhaps next time, when storm winds might exceed 75 mph, or water surges above 7 feet. As Hurricane Sandy knocked out Oyster Creek NPP’s emergency sirens, then perhaps the NRC can issue its two onsite inspectors with whistles so they can notify the local citizens should a future “incident” there rise beyond level two.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com