skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Corinne Hanson’s Blog

Studying Severe Weather Impacts on U.S. Nuclear Plants

Corinne Hanson

Posted March 25, 2013

, , , ,
Share | | |

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.

Share | | |


James Singmaster, III, Ph.D.Mar 26 2013 01:56 AM

If public will wake up to MAKING THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY SOURCE, it can supply all our energy needs. That means we can forget nuclear and fossil fuel energy and give EARTH a chance to recover. We could be dismantling nuclear plants perhaps using some parts in the ONCOMING HYDROGEN AGE. I wonder if any NRDC staffer has understood the impact of the Science report, Dec7, pg.1321-4 no NRDC staffer has posted any comments on it and getting to hydrogen. Of course almost everything NRDC has worked on becomes close to meaningless as Hydrogen totally makes fracking and XL pipelines nonsense along with the CCS baloney and geoengineering daydreaming. I hope the people at the Climate Summit will call on Obama and other officials at DOE to wake up to MAKing THE SUN OUR SOLE
ENERGY SOURCE. Will NRDC step forward with positive can-do action or keep going with can't nonaction?????
Dr. J. Singmaster, III, Ret. Environmental Chemist, Fremont, CA

Mike BuraczewskiMar 26 2013 07:10 PM

Dr Singmaster,

I comment your idea as worthy, but short sighted. Although the sun in the form of fusion energy is certainly capable of supporting our energy needs, it is not nearly practical at this time. Solar panel energy cannot support 24/7 electrical support and my reading indicates that no storage capability is available near term to make it suitable for base load energy needs. The power of the sun in the form of fusion [note another form of nuclear energy] is also not developed nor nearly developed in any means to become a mainstream base load power source.

As the blogger here noted, there is an increasingly common extreme weather pattern descending upon us, most likely as a result of carbon dioxide loading in our atmosphere.

Anyone that is truly an environmentalist, concerned for the EARTH and it's future should get behind the ONLY carbon free source of reliable electric power in existence TODAY. That is nuclear and only nuclear.

Scare tactics about what MIGHT have happened, IF the water level had risen 300% above what actually occurred is simply a means to scare people without actually having something to scare them with.

Nuclear is SAFE, RELIABLE, and PROVEN.
Nuclear powered electric generation IS NOT the same as nuclear weaponry and it is time that people stopped demonizing it.

At least 100 people in the US died as a result of Hurricane Sandy, most of them from drowning. Not a single person was injured or threatened by the nuclear power plants identified in this article. In fact, the continued operation of a majority of the plants identified in the map above allowed people to have reliable electrical power during the post storm recovery efforts.

If you are serious about improving the environment in your lifetime, then get serious about supporting nuclear power!

Justin PassingMar 28 2013 11:10 AM

One point of clarification. Oyster Creek was already shut down for a refueling outage before Sandy; it did not shut down due to the storm.

Justin PassingMar 28 2013 11:13 AM

"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."

Another clarification: NRC has resident inspectors at every US nuclear power plant every day, storm or not.

Alex BMar 30 2013 08:03 PM

One thing you neglected to mention is that both Indian Point and Nine Mile Point shut down due to a load reject. Load reject occurs when the storm wipes out the transmission equipment between the plants and the consumers (e.g. high voltage transmission lines or transformers). Without this non-plant equipment, the plant has nowhere to send its electricity. It can't store any of the electricity, so it is forced to shutdown. There were no equipment failures at the plants at all that lead to them shutting down during the storm. I don't know if you purposefully left this out or just weren't aware.

NorthernIllinoisApr 1 2013 03:15 PM

I believe it is a problem that these nuclear plants did not all shutdown safely before Sandy to avoid the EMERGENCY shutdowns and radiation release caused by it. I record my real-time background radiation readings every minute before and after Sandy. When the winds from Sandy reached me in Northern Illinois, I watched my readings go up. I have several Geiger counters hooked to different networks, but I like best.

Justin PassingApr 3 2013 02:23 PM

I'm not sure the Sandy shutdowns were categorized as emergencies. Regardless of their categorization by NRC, however, why would shutting a plant due to load rejection during the storm release more radiation than shutting it preemptively before the storm? I can't think of any technical reasons for that. How large were the radiation increases you observed, and how well if at all did they correlate with the timings of the plant shutdowns?

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In