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Did Nuclear Power Withstand the Test of Sandy?

By LindsayM

Hurricane Sandy brought a new level of terror and fright than what the East Coast is used to at the end of October. Projections are estimating that the total property damage from Sandy will top $20 billion. If that number holds true, it will be the costliest storm since Hurricane Ike in 2008 (though I think it’s safe to say it could easily surpass Ike’s damage).

While electrical crews may be working to restore power for weeks to come, the nuclear power industry is, for the most part, breathing a sigh of relief. The 34 nuclear facilities from South Carolina to Vermont in Sandy’s path withstood the storm during an era when nuclear power must continue to prove itself as safe and trustworthy.

Sandy may have been just the test the nuclear industry needed to pass post-Fukushima. For the general public, the March 2011 Japan disaster undoubtedly caused apprehension towards nuclear power to escalate. At POWER-GEN 2011, we heard from Elmo Collins of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who said Fukushima “felt like it happened in our own back yard” and “changed the conversations about nuclear power from the economical and safety perspectives.”

Instead of pushing Fukushima off as something that could never happen in the U.S., the NRC has upped efforts to ensure safety at U.S. nuclear facilities, therefore further ensuring that the fleet was perfectly positioned to withstand Sandy.

Several measures are taken at nuclear facilities prior to hurricane landfall. (For a full look at how nuclear plants prepare for hurricanes, take a look at this story from our October issue.) A reactor is shut down at least two hours before the onset of hurricane-force (70 to 75 mph) winds at a nuclear facility. If there is a loss of on-site power during or after a hurricane, reactors will automatically shut down as a precaution, and emergency backup diesel generators will begin operating.

During Sandy, three nuclear power reactors – Indian Point Unit 3, Salem Unit 1 and Nine Mile Point Unit 1 – were shut down because of electricity issues, and Oyster Creek in New Jersey went into “alert” mode due to high water levels in its water intake structure. Oyster Creek was already shut down due to a regularly scheduled outage. All three reactors shut down safely, according to the NRC.

“Actions taken by companies operating reactors in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast once again demonstrate that nuclear energy facilities are well-protected against extreme natural events,” said Martin S. Fertel, president and chief executive officer at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

It’s likely that the four nuclear facilities where events occurred during Sandy will be under intense scrutiny in the coming months in order to guarantee that safety and procedural measures were followed to a tee. But overall, the U.S. nuclear fleet has passed another test of nature and emergency preparedness.

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