U.S. nuclear power plants weather the polar vortex

U.S. nuclear power plants have weathered through brutal cold weather that has spread from coast to coast.

Much of the country has been dealing with sub-zero temperatures, snow and ice for several days. The frigid temperatures have already caused power outages and high demand for electricity. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas reportedly had two power plants shut down. The loss of power led to an energy emergency alert in the region. The Tennessee Valley Authority, Appalachian Power and Dominion all said they either met or exceeded records for power demand.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) said in a release dated Jan. 6 that nuclear power maintained more than 97 percent operating capacity from Jan. 4-Jan. 6, and it dropped to just under 95 percent on Jan. 7, NEI said. NEI and the World Nuclear Association both said that nuclear plants were running at the highest capacity ever.

Two nuclear plants, Entergy’s Indian Point nuclear plant in New York and FirstEnergy Nuclear’s Beaver Valley nuclear plant in Pennsylvania, did shut down on Jan. 6. Entergy said the cold weather was not the reason behind the automatic trip at Indian Point, the cause behind Beaver Valley’s shutdown is still under investigation. Indian Point was returned to service on Jan. 8.

Resident inspectors with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) use an “Adverse Weather Protection” inspection procedure to check a nuclear plant’s readiness to withstand weather conditions before the start of the season, according to an NRC blog. In times of extreme weather, inspectors up the frequency of the checks.

“As applicable, verify cold weather protection features, such as heat tracing, space heaters, and weatherized enclosures are monitored sufficiently to ensure they support operability of the system, structure or component (SSC) they protect,” the blog quoted the procedure as saying.

FirstEnergy Corp., which has nuclear power plants in Pennsylvania and Ohio, said cold weather preparations are similar to how homeowners prepare for the winter.

“For example, we ensure that all doors are shut and sealed tightly and we maintain internal operations to the extent possible, minimizing our employees’ time spent outdoors,” said Jennifer Young, a spokesperson for FirstEnergy. “We provide supplemental heaters in remote areas and verify that extra equipment is on hand. We also confirm that all heat trace systems are working effectively – these are systems that warm and insulate pipes throughout our facilities.”

Southern Nuclear said the company has emergency preparedness plans in place, and the plants are all designed to withstand environmental dangers such as extreme weather.

“In preparation for the extremely cold weather, we have worked closely with employees in our Emergency Response Organization and plans are in place to guarantee the ability to quickly report for duty and activate the organization in the unlikely event of a plant emergency,” said Michelle Tims, spokesperson with Southern Nuclear.

PPL Corp. said workers took extra precautions against the severe weather, with the main focus on personnel safety as well as plant operation.

“Our operations department performed additional walk downs of outer buildings and potentially impacted areas,” said Joe Scopelliti, community relations manager for the PPL Susquehanna nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. “We staffed our outage control center with department leaders to oversee and coordinate composite teams to perform additional inspections and to respond if repairs were required. We also evaluated our planned work and testing activities to ensure that we would not perform any activities that would place the station at additional risk given the extreme cold weather conditions.”