Nuclear Plants Safely Weather Hurricane Irene

Hurricane Irene lingered in the Mid-Atlantic Saturday like a dinner guest who wouldn’t leave, soaking the region with rain and pounding it with wind. Throughout the storm, the NRC has kept watch over the nuclear power plants in her path.

Initial reports show that only one nuclear plant in the Mid-Atlantic experienced any issues as Irene passed. Unit 1 of the two-reactor Calvert Cliffs plant in Lusby, Md., shut down automatically late Saturday evening after heavy wind ripped some siding off a building. The siding struck a transformer, knocking it offline, and that caused a turbine to trip, which in turn triggered the reactor shutdown.

As of Sunday morning, the reactor was safe, there was no release of radioactivity, and NRC inspectors onsite were helping plant personnel inspect and secure the facility. Unit 1 terminated its “unusual event” declaration early Sunday morning. Unit 2 remains operating at 100 percent power.

As Irene moved up the coast, the Oyster Creek plant in Toms River, N.J., which was directly in the projected storm path, shut down in anticipation of experiencing hurricane-force winds. Millstone, further north in Connecticut, reduced power in anticipation that it might also have to shut down. These precautionary moves demonstrate the focus of the NRC and industry on maintaining the safety of nuclear power plants in extreme circumstances such as hurricanes.

None of the plants in areas hit by the storm on Saturday lost offsite power from the grid. However, several plants reported some of their emergency sirens were knocked offline by power outages. All plants have back-up options for such a situation.

The NRC’s Office of Public Affairs handled numerous media inquiries about the status of the plants. The BBC World News even cited Fukushima as evidence of what a natural disaster can do to nuclear power plants. There were of course two huge differences between the double whammy that hit Japan and Hurricane Irene. First, none of the projected wind speeds or storm surges even came close to threatening the levels that the nuclear power plants in Irene’s path were designed to withstand. And, of course, we could see Irene coming – there was time to prepare and send additional NRC inspectors to the plants before the storm hit.

Other questions focused understandably on when Calvert Cliffs 1 and Oyster Creek will be able to resume operations. Unfortunately, it’s easier to shut down a nuclear power plant than it is to start one up again. There are protocols the plants must follow to ensure that everything is ready to operate again. We’ll have more about what plants must do before restarting in a future blog post.

David McIntyre
Office of Public Affairs
Moderator: This post has been slightly revised from the original.
%d bloggers like this: