Natural Hazards Are Part of the Planning

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer


Up to now the 2014 Atlantic hurricane season has been pretty calm, but the NRC always keeps an eye out for the strong weather-related events and other natural events the world can generate. We make sure both U.S. nuclear power plants and the agency are prepared for high winds, storm surge and a whole lot more.

Most recently, the seven reactors affected by 2012’s Superstorm Sandy remained safe. Other plants have safely withstood powerful storms, including Waterford 3 in Louisiana handling the effects of 2005’s Katrina and Turkey Point in Florida safely taking a direct hit from 1992’s Andrew.

Sandy may have left a mess in New York, but the nuclear reactors in its wake remained safe. Photo courtesy of FEMA
Sandy left a mess in New York, but the nuclear reactors in its wake remained safe. Photo courtesy of FEMA

Flooding can happen with or without storms, and U.S. plants are designed to and safely ride out significant events, such as when Fort Calhoun in Nebraska dealt with an overflowing Missouri River in 2011. Also in that year, Vermont Yankee remained safe as the Connecticut River valley suffered severe short-term floods from Hurricane Irene’s remnants.

Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear accident in March 2012 showed the world what flooding (in this case from a tsunami) can do to a reactor. The NRC’s learned several flooding-related lessons. from the accident. As a result of NRC direction, U.S. plants are using the latest software and technical know-how to re-analyze all flooding sources. This will help the NRC determine if the plants need to consider higher flooding water levels when establishing plans to stay safe. This effort has also examined existing flood protection and all plants have taken steps to confirm they can implement reliable flood safety plans. In the meantime, several plants have also chosen to enhance their flood protection.

An earthquake caused the tsunami that devastated Fukushima, and again U.S. plants are designed to stay safe in the face of quakes that affect their area. Virginia’s North Anna plant was hit by an August 2011 quake centered a short distance away. The earthquake was strong enough to be felt across the East Coast; it shook North Anna with a little more force than what the plant was originally designed to withstand. North Anna remained safe – multiple inspections showed the plant’s systems were undamaged. This was unsurprising, since plant systems are designed to withstand a combination of events that can exceed the forces generated by an earthquake alone.

As with flooding, the NRC has learned from Fukushima’s quake and other recent earthquakes, and we’re having every U.S. plant reanalyze earthquake hazards to see where enhancements might be needed. All the plants east of the Rockies have taken the first step in that process, and the other plants will do the same next March.

U.S. reactors are also designed for (and have safely survived) hazards such as tornadoes, droughts and other severe weather events. Even with all this preparation, Fukushima reminds us to prepare for the unexpected. The NRC’s approach here involves every U.S. reactor having additional portable systems to restore and maintain safety functions.

All of this work helps ensure the public stays safe when natural disasters strike that may impact U.S. nuclear power plants.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

13 thoughts on “Natural Hazards Are Part of the Planning”

  1. Really? I took your advice, Dan Williamson, and went to Atomic Insights. I found “little more than a chat room.” There was no comment that was supported with any traceable data. Even John Tjostem conveniently omitted mention of miscarriage, stillbirth and crib death. The idea I have read is that “once” the cases of thyroid cancer are taken care of — well, that’s it. Let me refer you to some real science that has been done on the environment around Chernobyl. However, be warned that these “independent scientists” namely Moeller, Mousseau, et. al. have a tendency to sarcastic comments about the psychological effect of radiation on birds, trees, and other non-human species.

    27 Years Later, Radiation Still Hides Out in Chernobyl’s Trees (Fukushima’s Too)
    Trapped in the trees, radiation from Chernobyl could be re-released with a forest fire
    By Colin Schultz
    JUNE 28, 2013

    PLoS One. 2012;7(4):e35223. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0035223. Epub 2012 Apr 11.
    Elevated mortality among birds in Chernobyl as judged from skewed age and sex ratios.
    Møller AP1, Bonisoli-Alquati A, Rudolfsen G, Mousseau TA.

    PLoS One. 2011; 6(2): e16862.
    Published online Feb 4, 2011. doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0016862
    PMCID: PMC3033907
    Chernobyl Birds Have Smaller Brains
    Anders Pape Møller,1,* Andea Bonisoli-Alquati,2 Geir Rudolfsen,3 and Timothy A. Mousseau2

    J Comp Physiol B. 2008 Aug;178(6):735-43. doi: 10.1007/s00360-008-0262-z. Epub 2008 Apr 8.
    Antioxidants in eggs of great tits Parus major from Chernobyl and hatching success.
    Møller AP1, Karadas F, Mousseau TA.

    March 2014
    Highly reduced mass loss rates and increased litter layer in radioactively contaminated areas
    Timothy A. Mousseau, Gennadi Milinevsky, Jane Kenney-Hunt, Anders Pape Møller

    Ecol Appl. 2006 Oct;16(5):1696-705.
    Chernobyl as a population sink for barn swallows: tracking dispersal using stable-isotope profiles.
    Møller AP1, Hobson KA, Mousseau TA, Peklo AM.

    DOI 10.1007/s00442-014-2908-8

  2. I guess then the NRC and these two nuclear power plants are pledged to keep this “damming” Corps info from the public?! The NRC and the two customer-owned public power districts (who own these plants) concur that their ratepayers and everyone along and in the vast Missouri River basin do not need to know this information. Why is this information being withheld? Can the public at least know the reason why? Could it be that this information would possibly aid and abet an enemy of this country? Let me assure you that the cat is already out of the bag on that one. For decades it has been known that dams can be used as a weapon of mass destruction. It is also known that in all this time nothing has been done to protect these dams even though they are a prime terrorist target. With the Corps info, the NRC and these nuclear plants know just how bad dam failures on the Missouri River could be. A cloak of secrecy will continue to hamper the development of any meaningful corrective actions to protect the public. And that is a damn shame!

  3. As the NRC has noted repeatedly on the blog, the Army Corps of Engineers determines what information regarding its dams can be made publicly available. Both agencies have long been an active participant in the Interagency Committee on Dam Safety ( ). The committee’s other members include FEMA, the Bureau of Land Management and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The committee’s regular discussions include relevant updates on the potential effects of dam failures. As we have said elsewhere on the blog, the Corps’ emergency action plans for Missouri River dams are already incorporated into FEMA and state/local emergency planning.

  4. The NRC Blog is an informal forum where the agency’s posts provide information on various topics. The NRC staff uses the comment section to answer clarifying questions where appropriate. Public commenters’ opinions are theirs to defend if, as has happened several times, another commenter offers a competing point of view.

  5. Dear Moderator

    I hope you didn’t intend that it turn out this way, but your blog has become little more than a chat room for the purveyors of FUD, hiding behind their inflated monikers, making broad baseless claims of apocalyptic doom, and congratulating each other on their “great comments.” Oh, they would howl about some supposed hindrance of public discourse, but you should just have your webmaster redirect hits on your site over to Atomic Insights, where such blather is promptly deflated, and some actual debate is happening. There’s not much learning going on here.

  6. Six ancient dams are located upstream of two old nuclear power plants on the MIssouri River. If a dam fails it will cause a domino failure of other dams downstream. This would result in the worst man-made disaster in history. The loss of the downstream nuclear plants would be the least of our worries for the loss of life and property due to this tsunami and flooding would outstrip Chernobyl and Fukushima. These dams are old, a constant-maintenance headache, and are susceptible to earthquakes and sabotage. The Army Corps of Engineers, the NRC, and these two nuclear plants have detailed information on just how horrible the consequences would be. Despite repeated requests for this information to be provided to the public they all have refused. If this information were to be made public perhaps our government would be forced to take action to upgrade these dams; provide adequate security for them; and to work with FEMA, State, and local emergency preparedness folks to create adequate emergency plans. As it is this secrecy is jeopardizing public health and safety.

  7. Fukushima proved that Nature can destroy any land based nuclear reactor, any place anytime 24/7 and there is nothing that the NRC can do short of shutting down a reactor that can prevent yet another Fukushima from happening.

    Tom think otherwise, is doing what the Japanese Experts did before 03/11/11 when they shared the belief that they could out engineer Nature and we all know how that worked out!

  8. NRC has missed the real lesson of Fukushima (March, 2011) and San Onofre (January, 2012) — let alone, Fort Calhoun 2011, Davis-Besse 2002, TMI 1979, Fermi-1 1972, SL-1 1961, Santa Susana 1959, etc..

    That lesson is that accidents WILL happen. To THESE reactors. The current designs of BWRs and PWRs are inadequate and cannot prevent normal, expected confluences of influences. Both reactor types have numerous Achilles heals in their design.

    It has taken NRC years to decide what actually happened at Fukushima. That delay in itself is a disgrace, and then the reactor companies are given years more to fix things. It could be ten years or more before the full list of improvements that are obviously needed is accomplished. This is partly because the Japanese have been very dishonest and not provided the public or, as far as anyone knows, you, with the truth. (If they have provided it to you, you have not released it to the public.)

    We know that bringing in offsite power from anywhere that can provide the 30 to 40 megawatts of power per reactor that is needed at all times, except for battery life, must be solved. Even when the entire area for miles around has been flooded and the roads cracked by earthquakes and rendered impassible, yet somehow… the impossible must be accomplished.

    We know that venting dangerous hydrogen gas that builds up when fuel cladding melts might prevent an explosion, but will mean more radionuclides will be released to the public sooner. What a nasty choice one has to make! But the explosions could have resulted in a drained spent fuel pool. So we know you have to vent that poisonous, explosive toxin that indicates a meltdown to the atmosphere right away. Those were huge explosions and we were lucky a spent fuel pool didn’t crack and drain. We learned that the GE-MARK X reactor design, with the spent fuel pool 5 stories above the ground and above the reactor, is foolhardy. Yet nearly two dozen similar reactors remain in operation in America. Fukushima could have been a whole lot worse and still might be. And it’s still going on.

    Regarding San Onofre, we learned how far nuclear utility companies will go to avoid scrutiny by both the NRC and the public. You were hoodwinked, but it seems it was a bit knowingly. You turned a blind eye when Southern California Edison turned in a new design for their steam generators that needed a good, professional engineering review, and got a cursory OKAY instead. Thankfully, only one steam generator tube leaked, but two adjacent tubes had 99% through-wall wear and nothing had been detected or even suspected until the leak happened. SCE’s negligence nearly cost southern Californian’s the better part of three of the most populous (and most contented) counties in America. But ultimately, SCE’s negligence is your negligence, too, as their regulator. And on top of that, there is still no way for any PWR reactor operator to safely handle multi-tube breakaway conditions after a main steam line break with an isolation valve failure. With the tube breaks, such an event is well beyond any design basis accident.

    So our PWRs are vulnerable, our BWRs are vulnerable, and our regulators are lax and remain blissfully uninformed about past events.

    Perhaps the biggest lesson from Japan, besides that accidents will happen, is that post-accident cleanup is a whole lot bigger of a problem than anyone thought. And huge swaths of land will be lost, and tens of thousands of kids will have thyroid nodules even just three years after, let alone what will happen 30 years down the road (speaking as a cancer survivor myself, and my wife, and many of my friends).

    The NRC’s duty is to the people, not the reactor companies. Not one reactor operating can claim to be fail-safe, but they’ve been claiming it all along. And not one reactor knows what to do with the waste pile it is creating. We’ve learned what happens when a reactor closes: The NRC relaxes controls and oversight of millions of pounds of extremely toxic material (used reactor core assemblies known as spent fuel) that God-knows-how-many terrorists would give their life to get at, or just to release to the public. Poorly guarded toxins and no long-term plan — that’s what people get after the reactor closes. The dry casks at North Anna rocked and rolled about 4 inches in that earthquake, but no harm done?

    No one went inside a dry cask and inspected how many pellets had collected at the bottom, or how many cracks had formed along sides of the rods.

    And that’s only the end of the line. Before that, there’s flaming hell just waiting to get out. You’ve failed, NRC, and you can’t recover. After Fukushima another lesson we got is that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission cannot see the light (aka Solartopia, which is making your behemoths uneconomical anyway, but not nearly fast enough).

    Do your job, NRC. Shut ’em down. Diablo Canyon, Palo Verde, anything owned by Entergy… all of them, as quickly as possible.

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