NRC — Ready for the 2015 Hurricane Season UPDATED

Update: Due to Hurricane Bill, the South Texas Project nuclear power plant, located near Bay City, Texas, has started tropical storm/hurricane procedures. Actions taken include performing a plant walkdown to secure and tie down anything that could be become a projectile missile or flying debris. The plant operator has implemented restrictions for employees to stay inside if winds get above 40 mph. Today, winds are projected to be sustained at 50 mph with gusts up to 60 mph. Both units are at full power unless winds reach speeds above 75 mph, but that is not expected at this time. They have additional staff onsite and supplies (cots, food, water). The resident inspectors are not evacuating and an additional group of NRC inspectors has been on site and will remain so to back up the residents if need be. (At this time the hurricane is not expected to affect River Bend or Waterford nuclear power plants, but the NRC’s Region IV will continue to monitor the projected path.)

Roger Hannah
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region II

The hurricane season officially began June 1, but this year the Carolina coast experienced a tropical storm named Ana in early May. While Ana produced winds of more than 60 miles an hour near the Brunswick nuclear plant, there was no major damage. It did, however, serve as an early reminder of the NRC’s role in ensuring nuclear plants remain safe during damaging winds and storm surges.

A hurricane as seen by satellite. Be assured, it's not happening now.
A hurricane as seen by satellite. Be assured, it’s not a current photo and is NOT happening now.

The NRC has years of experience with hurricanes and other severe storms. Nuclear facilities were affected by Hurricane Andrew in Florida in 1992, by Katrina in Louisiana in 2005, by Sandy along the East Coast in 2012 and by many others. Although the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts fewer storms this year than the historical average, any storm can be dangerous.

How does the NRC oversee the safety of nuclear plants and other facilities during these storms?

The NRC staff monitors tropical storms as they form, and if the projected path is towards the coast, the agency’s regional offices begin continuous tracking. If a storm’s path shows the possibility of it affecting a nuclear plant or other NRC-licensed facility, the NRC collects more information on the storm and NRC resident inspectors check the plant’s preparations. Depending on the projections, additional NRC inspectors may be dispatched to some nuclear plants.

Around 12 hours before predicted hurricane-force winds, nuclear facilities that may be in the path provide the NRC updates and NRC inspectors monitor the plant staff’s actions. Plant procedures require the plant operators to shut the reactor down if winds greater than a certain speed are expected on the plant site.

Nuclear plants are built to withstand all expected local meteorological events, including hurricanes, and actual storms have shown that plants can safely shut down and with little or no damage to important safety equipment.

The NRC stays in contact with plants and NRC inspectors on site as the storm passes over, and the agency has backup systems if regular communications channels are lost.

Once the storm is over, the NRC and FEMA assess damage and make sure local emergency response organizations can resume their normal roles. If the plant shut down, it will only be restarted after the NRC is satisfied there is no damage to safety equipment and emergency response capabilities have been restored.

Fortunately, most tropical storms and hurricanes do not adversely affect nuclear plants, but the NRC is ready in case one does.

Heeding the Sirens – Despite A Few Mishaps

Victor Dricks
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region IV

sirenResidents of St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, who live within the 10-mile emergency planning zone for the Waterford 3 nuclear plant, got an unexpected benefit last week when 37 emergency sirens were sounded for a tornado warning.

St. John Parish is similarly protected by 36 sirens. But thousands of other residents who live in surrounding parishes have no sirens.

The reason: The NRC and FEMA work together to make sure the commercial nuclear power plants in this country have sirens around their sites to alert the public in the event of a serious incident. Various federal, state and local agencies also have emergency notification systems they can use to alert the public to a variety of emergencies — including one at a nuclear plant.

“The people of St. Charles Parrish got the benefit of the emergency sirens that surround Waterford 3,” said Ron Perry, the Director of Emergency Preparedness for Homeland Security in St. Charles Parish.

Each nuclear plant is required to exercise its emergency plan with offsite authorities at least once every two years – which includes checking the siren systems. This helps make sure the plant operator, and state and local authorities, can implement their emergency plans if needed. If all goes according to plan, the interface among all these agencies is seamless.

But things do not always go as planned.

Last year, while preparing for an upcoming emergency exercise at the plant, the National Weather Service inadvertently alerted the public around the Cooper Nuclear Station in Brownville, Neb., of an unspecified emergency at the plant. The weather service was updating the wording of messages stored in a computer system when someone pushed the wrong button. This sent an advisory to various news media organizations and some members of the public.

The weather service quickly realized what happened and sent a message explaining the error to the media 13 minutes later. But, the mishap received plenty of news coverage.

Unfortunately, this was the second recent incident about emergencies at the Cooper nuclear plant. On July 24, Nebraska Public Power District workers were working on a computer system that controls sirens in Nemaha County when a false alarm was broadcast.

There have been two other similar incidents at Region IV nuclear plants in recent memory:

Last summer, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. workers were upgrading their siren system around Diablo Canyon when they inadvertently activated one at 3:30 in the afternoon. It sounded continuously for 14 minutes before workers were able to deactivate it remotely. It took 10 minutes before county officials sent out an advisory noting the error. Some people vented their anger about all the confusion on the county’s Facebook page, and several local TV stations and the Associated Press carried reports about the incident.

sirenNot a week later, something similar happened in Washington State. During a training class at the state Emergency Operations Center, a staffer inadvertently faxed a partially filled out form for an Alert (the second lowest level of nuclear emergency) at Columbia Generating Station. The fax went to nine different emergency management agencies, including one in Canada. A second fax was quickly sent out correcting the error.

The NRC is primarily concerned with the reliability of sirens. The NRC tracks the performance of licensee alert and notification systems by measuring the number of successful siren tests conducted quarterly at each plant. These types of incidents are embarrassing to all involved and in each instance corrective actions have been taken to minimize the chance of future mishaps.

But the bottom line is that residents in the communities around nuclear power plants need to heed the warning, and trust the emergency alert systems. A few false alarms should not change their response. If you hear a siren, or get a text message on your phone announcing an emergency, please heed the warning.