NRC’s Preparations for Hurricane Season Enable Quick Response – If Necessary

Roger Hannah
Senior Public Affairs Officer
Region II

The hurricane season officially begins next week, and this year hurricane experts are predicting 12-14 named storms in the Atlantic with at least a couple of major hurricanes. After two years of seeing a below average number of storms, some of those experts are saying this could be an unpredictable and potentially dangerous season.

2016 Tropical Weather Outlook MayAs they do prior to every hurricane season, NRC staff members are preparing for the challenge and will be ready for any storms that make landfall and threaten the facilities we regulate. NRC preparations begin with training for all those staff members who might have to respond during a storm, testing of communications systems, and inspections to confirm that nuclear power plants in hurricane-prone areas have completed their extensive hurricane preparations.

The annual hurricane season runs until Nov. 30, and the NRC staff routinely tracks each storm from formation until dissipation, constantly evaluating whether it could pose a threat to U.S. nuclear plants and other NRC-licensed facilities.

If a storm approaches the mainland, the NRC regional offices provide regular updates to the NRC’s Headquarters Operations Center in Rockville, Md. Depending on the location of the storm, the Region II office in Atlanta, the Region I office outside Philadelphia, or the Region IV office in Arlington, Texas, may be involved. These briefings include information about staffing of the regional Incident Response Centers, assignment of additional staff to supplement the NRC resident inspectors at the potentially affected plants, and actions underway to ensure continuous communications with NRC-licensed facilities along the projected path of the storm.

Before a storm even forms, the NRC’s regional offices make sure that appropriate equipment, including satellite phones, are available and operational.

When a storm does form and its projected path shows possible impact on a coastline, one or more of the regional offices begins continuous hurricane tracking using the resources of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Hurricane Center, other federal agencies and commercial weather forecasting services.

Within 48 hours of expected hurricane force winds, NRC officials are dispatched to the State Emergency Operations Centers in the affected states. Additional NRC personnel are identified and placed “on-call” to respond if needed for any storm-induced emergency.

About 12 hours before the arrival of hurricane force winds, the agency will begin receiving continuous status updates from all of the NRC-licensed facilities in the hurricane’s path. Communications links will also be established with state emergency response officials and other federal response agencies.

During a storm’s landfall, NRC staff members maintain close contact with the plant staff and with NRC resident inspectors on site. If normal communications are lost, emergency communications systems are used.

Following any hurricane, the NRC inspectors help assess the extent of any damage to the facility and, if necessary, respond to any storm-induced problems. The agency also works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine when evacuation routes are passable and offsite emergency response organizations will be sufficiently recovered from the hurricane response to resume normal activities.

We all hope 2016’s hurricane season has little or no effect on NRC-regulated facilities and all other areas where people live, but in any case, our advance preparation allows the NRC staff to respond quickly and effectively if a hurricane or major storm does strike.

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.