As Hurricane Sandy barreled towards the Northeastern US, 60 million coastal and inland residents suddenly found themselves in the crosshairs of climate change. Large enough to hammer the eastern third of the country with record-breaking winds, rain and floods, the Halloween Hurricane packed an unprecedented punch—it was set to collide head-on with a massive blizzard storming in from the northwest.
With the Eastern Seaboard about to become the Ground Zero of Extreme Weather, homeowners, first responders, and public officials prepared to deal with potentially historic damage to buildings, farms, and roads as well as region-wide disruptions of fuel and power.
And then there is the issue of nuclear power plants.
Nuclear reactors are barely mentioned when disaster preparedness agencies begin issuing storm warnings. This is a mistake. In the past, floods, storms, lightening strikes and earthquakes have repeatedly knocked US reactors offline. On several occasions, extended power outages have put reactors at risk of core damage. In a few cases, some of these high-risk atomic steam kettles came within hours of a meltdown before critical power was restored.
Hurricanes, Tornadoes and Floods, Oh My!
Hurricanes, tornadoes, and epic floods have measurably increased in frequency and intensity since the 1990s. Residents of the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico have seen neighborhoods ravaged by more than one “once-in-a-lifetime” hurricane.
More than 20 nuclear power plants are located in Hurricane Sandy’s immediate path—including reactors at Beaver Valley, Calvert Cliffs, Limerick, Millstone, Three Mile Island, Salem, Seabrook, Susquehana, Surry and at Indian Point (24 miles north of New York City).
Especially worrisome are several GE Mark 1 reactors that share the same design flaws as the three GE-built reactors that lost power, suffered meltdowns and exploded in Fukushima, Japan. The eight Fukushima-style reactors located in Sandy’s path are: Fitzpatrick (New York), Hope Creek (New Jersey), Nine Mile Point 1 (New York), Oyster Creek (New Jersey), Peach Bottom 1 & 2 (Pennsylvania), Pilgrim (Massachusetts), and Vermont Yankee (Vermont).
A History of Weather-related Near Misses
Even without Fukushima-scale temblors and tsunamis, reactors remain surprisingly vulnerable to major storms.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew slammed into Florida’s Turkey Point reactor near Miami, forcing the plant to rely on its emergency power generators. When the plant came dangerously close to running out of diesel fuel, Turkey Point’s operators had to commandeer fuel from nearby hospitals to keep the generators running and prevent a meltdown.
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In June 1998, Ohio’s Davis-Besse reactor was hit by a tornado that cut the plant off from the electric grid. Emergency generators kicked in, but the power outage lasted so long that the generators nearly failed. Without emergency cooling, the spent fuel in the facility’s on-site storage pools could have overheated, leading to a potential ignition and massive radiation release. Fortunately, outside power was restored shortly before the emergency generators would have run out of fuel.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina forced the shutdown of the Waterford nuclear plant in Louisiana and storm-related flooding along the Mississippi scuttled the state’s River Bend reactor.
In 2010, a tornado took down the power grid near Monroe, Michigan, damaging the 1,140-megawatt Fermi 2, and leaving the largest Fukushima-style Mark 1 reactor on earth without access to outside power needed to continue running emergency generators. Fermi’s storage pool contains more high-level waste than the four damaged Fukushima reactors combined.
In August 2011, 14 nuclear plants from Maryland to New Hampshire were put under an NRC storm watch as Hurricane Irene approached. The 2,1110 MW Millstone plant in Connecticut and the Brunswick plant on the North Carolina coast were both forced to power-down. In New Jersey, the Oyster Creek reactor went off-line. The worst damage was recorded at Maryland’s Calvert Cliff plant, where the Unit 1 reactor was forced into automatic shutdown when a transformer was damaged by flying aluminum siding ripped loose by the storm.
US storm watchers predict Hurricane Sandy could cut power to 10 million Americans for a week to ten days. If outside electricity fails, nuclear reactors must rely on emergency cooling systems to prevent a meltdown. The generators providing this protection typically have no more than a week’s supply of diesel fuel on site—insufficient to ride out a blackout lasting ten days.
The Hidden Risk of Inland Tsunamis
The United States has recently seen how reactors can be threatened by “inland tsunamis” released by extreme storms that cause rivers to overflow. In the US, 64 reactors sit near rivers or reservoirs that are prone to flooding. In the 1990s, flooding on the Missouri River caused the loss of emergency backup systems at Nebraska’s Cooper plant. Similar flooding along the Mississippi damaged emergency systems at the Prairie Island reactor in Minnesota.
In April 2011, the Fort Calhoun reactor, 20 miles north of Omaha, was engulfed by floodwaters as the rain-swollen Missouri overflowed its banks. The flooding was followed by an electrical fire in a critical safety system. Faced with $134 million in added repair costs, the reactor remains closed.
In mid-September, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was rocked by scandal when several NRC engineers revealed agency officials had suppressed a 2011 safety report. NRC engineer Richard Perkins claimed the NRC had “intentionally mischaracterized… safety information” to conceal the risk that “failure of one or more dams upstream from a nuclear plant may result in flood levels at a site that render essential safety systems inoperable.”
Climate-related damage—to roads, bridges, and reactors—is only expected to increase as the planet’s weather grows more unruly. As the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear notes: “When reactors partially power down, or shut down entirely . . . it often happens at a time when reliable electricity supplies are needed most.”
The irony in this, for those who would call for a “Nuclear Renaissance,” is that it is renewable energy—not nuclear power—that is proving itself to be “more reliable in a global-warming world.”