Studying Severe Weather Impacts on U.S. Nuclear Plants
Posted March 25, 2013
We live in a world where the combination of increasingly common extreme weather events and aging nuclear reactors makes the threat of severe nuclear accidents all too real. And while one would hope that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC) had taken the past two years to improve its severe accident safety measures based on lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi accident, lagging and still insufficient safety implementations have me worried. The Atlantic hurricane season officially begins on June 1st – a few months from now – and so I wanted to review what happened at U.S. nuclear reactors during the worst storm of 2012, and in the shadow of Fukushima.
Before Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the night of October 29, 2012, the NRC sent additional inspectors to nuclear power plants where it anticipated possible severe impacts from the hurricane. Of course there was some uncertainty as to the path Hurricane Sandy would follow. The nuclear power plants where NRC sent inspectors (highlighted in yellow in the above map) were: Oyster Creek, in Lacey Township, NJ; Salem and Hope Creek, in Hancocks Bridge, NJ; Calvert Cliffs, in Lusby, MD; Limerick, in Limerick Township, PA; Peach Bottom, in Delta, PA; Three Mile Island, in Middletown, PA; Susquehanna, in Salem Township, PA; Indian Point, in Buchanan, NY; and Millstone, in Waterford, CT. As my map shows (see the length scale), the reactors that NRC prioritized ahead of the storm fall in a roughly 200-mile circle around where Hurricane Sandy eventually made landfall, just south of Atlantic City, NJ.
Eventually hurricane-related shutdowns occurred at four nuclear reactors, including what the NRC calls an “Alert,” at one reactor – these are shown as orange or red squares in the map above. An Alert is the second of four NRC classifications of emergency conditions at a nuclear plant. In increasing order of severity these emergency conditions are: Notice of Unusual Event, Alert, Site Area Emergency and General Emergency. In an Alert “events are in process or have occurred which involve an actual or potential substantial degradation in the level of safety of the plant,” according to the NRC.
Due to rising water levels at Oyster Creek, the nuclear plant’s owner, Exelon, declared an Alert and shutdown. Later it became known that 39 of Oyster Creek’s 42 emergency sirens had been rendered inoperable due to power outages and equipment damage. Oyster Creek’s plant buildings are at an elevation of 23.5 feet, and the water level from Hurricane Sandy reached 7.4 feet, or about a third of the flood water level that would have inundated the reactor the way the tsunami inundated Fukushima. Nevertheless, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has given Oyster Creek until March 2015 to complete a revised flood hazard evaluation required of all U.S. nuclear power plants in the aftermath of the Fukushima meltdowns as the first step toward strengthening plant defenses against this potential precursor of a severe accident. In addition, storm related shutdowns occurred at three other nuclear reactors in the Northeastern United States: Salem Unit 1 (PSEG), Nine Mile Point Unit 1 (Constellation) and Indian Point Unit 3 (Entergy). Note on the above map that the shutdown at Nine Mile Point in New York – reportedly caused by a storm-related electrical fault – was far from the group of nuclear power plants where NRC inspectors had been sent.
I was able to create the above map because I am part of a pilot program here at NRDC learning to use GIS. GIS (which stands for Geographic Information System) is an incredibly useful mapping software framework that allows us to visualize, analyze and interpret a wide array of data. For example, in this map I was able to use both “raster data” in the form of a satellite image of Hurricane Sandy, and what is called “vector data” in order to show the geographic locations of affected Nuclear plants and the hurricane’s path. While GIS is applied across countless academic disciplines, industries, and subject matters, it has been particularly invaluable for NRDC’s environmental work. Being able to track which nuclear plant sites are most vulnerable to severe weather events is a critical element to ensuring the safety of surrounding populations and environments. In addition to what I’ve shown here, GIS also facilitates the analysis of populations and economic data in the regions surrounding the plants, namely the areas that would be devastated in the case of a Fukushima scale disaster. NRDC is increasing its own capacity by offering GIS training across its programs and offices, enabling us to better communicate important environmental findings.
As the two year anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster came and went this month, we’re reminded of how vulnerable U.S. reactors still are. Millions of people live within 50 miles of these nuclear power plants impacted by Hurricane Sandy, the size of the area where radiation impacts from Fukushima were felt. We must continue to press the NRC to mitigate the effects of extreme weather events on nuclear safety as the agency moves slowly forward with post-Fukushima improvements. Whether it’s record-breaking droughts that affect reactor cooling capabilities or massive storm surges that cause flooding-induced power outages, these events are expected to increase in both magnitude and frequency in the coming decades due to Climate Change. The NRC needs to recognize this impending hazard and adjust the pace of its regulatory work accordingly.
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