Extra federal inspectors were dispatched to U.S. nuclear-power plants in the path of Hurricane Sandy as operators and officials reassured the public that they are prepared for high winds, power outages and flooding associated with the massive storm.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it sent additional inspectors to 10 sites from Maryland to Connecticut, and issued the employees satellite telephones, as regulators and plant operators grappled with the worst storm to threaten U.S. nuclear facilities since a nuclear disaster in Japan last year. Procedures require the sites to be shut before winds are forecast to exceed hurricane force, the commission said today in a statement.
“Given the breadth and intensity of this historic storm, the NRC is keeping a close watch on all of the nuclear power plants that could be impacted,” NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said in a statement. “Our extra inspectors sent to the potentially affected sites will continue, on an around-the-clock basis, to independently verify that the safety of these plants is maintained until the storm has passed and afterwards.”
Analysts said loss of outside power, which is necessary to keep nuclear cores and spent fuel cool, would test procedures put in place after an earthquake-triggered tsunami led to radiation releases at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi plant in March 2011. The Tokyo Electric Power Co. plant lost off site power and backup generators failed after the earthquake.
U.S. nuclear plants are well-equipped to handle the threats from Sandy, said Arthur Motta, chairman of the Nuclear Engineering Program at Pennsylvania State University. “In terms of comparative risks, a nuclear power plant is safer than most of the other things nearby,” he said in an interview.
Plants in the path of the storm include Entergy Corp.’s Indian Point in New York and Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, owned by Constellation Energy Nuclear Group LLC, a joint venture of Exelon Corp. of Chicago and Electricite de France SA in Paris.
“All plants have flood protection above the predicted storm surge, and key components and systems are housed in watertight buildings capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds and flooding,” the NRC said in a statement earlier today.
At Indian Point, the debris in the Hudson River, which could disturb water-intake, poses a greater risk than flooding, Neil Sheehan, an NRC spokesman, said in an interview. All the plants in the storm’s path were told to examine their vicinity for large objects that could become “airborne missiles” in high winds, he said.
Exelon’s Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey, about 33 miles north of Atlantic City and near the center of the storm’s projected path, isn’t operating and is most likely to be affected by high tides and water levels from Sandy.
The company also repositioned emergency gear, activated back-up communications and boosted staffing at its Limerick, Peach Bottom and Three Mile Island plants in Pennsylvania, the company said in a statement.
Plant operators face risks including the loss of outside power and the inability to keep cool spent fuel stored at the facilities.
However, a year and a half after the disaster in Japan and with frequent warnings about Sandy, which reached hurricane status on Oct. 24, operators had adequate time to prepare, Chris Paine, the nuclear program director at the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, said in an interview.
‘Plenty of Warning’
“Right now I don’t see this as a kind of storm that poses enormous threat to nuclear plants,” Paine said. “They had plenty of warning, days in this case, to prepare.”
Given the threat of loss of power, “it would be more responsible if NRC and plant operators would shut the plants down in advance,” Kevin Kamps, a radioactive waste specialist at Beyond Nuclear, a Takoma Park, Maryland, group that seeks to end nuclear power and nuclear weapons, said in an interview.
It takes longer to cool down the radioactive core at a plant operating at full power, he said.
“In terms of reactors, you had better hope those diesel generators work adequately,” Kamps said.
Motta, member of a National Academy of Sciences panel on U.S. nuclear safety, disagreed, and said shutting the plants now wouldn’t make much of a difference.
Hurricane Sandy, the largest tropical storm recorded in the Atlantic, was forecast to make landfall later today near Atlantic City. With winds extending 1,100 miles, the storm shut the federal government in Washington and state offices from Virginia to Massachusetts. It halted travel, prevented U.S. stock markets from opening and upended the presidential campaign.
Backup diesel generators and cooling systems at Fukushima failed after a 15-meter surge of water tied to a 9-magnitude undersea earthquake on March 11, 2011, led to the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl in 1986. Hydrogen explosions occurred as water in the reactors and spent-fuel ponds boiled away and radiation leaked.
Just as with Fukushima, plant owners will “look back to see what flooding heights, wind speeds, et cetera, have occurred at the site, and design their plants to survive repeats,” Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project at the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an e-mail. “But when nature reaches new levels, as at Fukushima, past protections may be insufficient.”
“Designing by rear-view mirror works when nature cooperates and stays consistent with the past,” he said.
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