What Hurricane Sandy really tells us
[Reactor status update at the bottom of this post.]
The good news is the reactor most likely to be hit hardest by hurricane Sandy, Oyster Creek in NJ is already powered down for refueling. The bad news is that even powered down reactors are potential hazards if they loose off site power. Reactor must cool their fresh and especially spent fuel pools cool, even when they are not producing power.
Sandy is unlikely to cause a serious nuclear accident in the US. First off, despite its tremendous size, Sandy is a weak hurricane (Category 1) in sharp contrast to Katrina which destroyed so much of the New Orleans area (Category 5). This can be crudely likened to driving. At Cat 1 you are less than 95 mph and it is tricky, but you can hold it together. At Cat 5 you are over 157 mph and things are pretty terrifying and dangerous.
I suspect that especially given the warning they have had, every reactor will perform as designed. These are hardened sites, they will have tested all the back up diesel generators and if off site power is lost, they will fire these up and they will cool the fuel rods and the spent fuel pools until power is restored. The danger is that flooding could cause infrastructure failure and offsite power would not be replaced quickly enough to keep the diesel generators going. And if needed fuel can be airlifted in, all the stuff for good adventure films. Sandy is not the tsunami of Fukushima fame, despite the hype.
And what Sandy is telling us is that bigger storms are coming. That we are seeing the effects of climate change in our lifetime and that they are going to be significant. As regular readers of this blog know, i think the flooding accident at Fort Calhoun last summer is actually more important as a warning than Fukushima is, because 1) it happened here in the US (where we are actually still building new reactors) and 2) it was only not a meltdown because it stopped raining. Hardly a comforting thought.
The other thing that Sandy is reminding us is that the recent revelations that the NRC is hiding embarrassing information about dam weaknesses near reactors is especially worrisome because it again proves the regulator is more interested in protecting its own image and the nuclear industry than public safety. And that these types of storms can have catastrophic consequences.
It is not Sandy’s relatively mild winds which are the danger here, it is that we are likely to ignore that she is warning us that the climate has changed and bigger storms are coming. The nuclear industry will certainly point to Sandy as proof that everything is alright and we have no need to worry about reactors in the age of climate chance. This is another lie. Sandy is a harbinger of storms that are beyond what these reactors are designed for and thus we should be phasing them out and not building more.[Update 30 Oct 2PM eastern US time: This ABC News storyreports problems at 5 reactors:
- Oyster Creek may have to use fire system to cool spent fuel
- Indian Point (near NYC) automatically shut down when offsite power was lost
- Salem outside Philly was shut down when 4 of 6 water pumps failed
- Two reactors at Nine Mile Point shut down because of an electrical fault
Additionally, power was reduced at the 2 Limerick reactors in PA and one Milestone reactor in CT, because of Sandy.]