The projected path of Hurricane Sandy could impact as many as 26 nuclear plants. Arnie Gundersen, the chief engineer of energy consulting company Fairewinds Associates, warns of the dangers.
As the Frankenstorm hits the east coast, leaving millions without power, Gundersen warns that even if engineers at plants from North Carolina to New England say their plants have been shut down and are safe from disaster, this could already be too late.
The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has already declared an Alert at the US's oldest nuclear power plant in Oyster Creek, New Jersey, due to high levels of water. The alert came after water levels at the plant rose by more than 6.5 feet, potentially affecting the pumps that circulate water through the plant.
The NRC warns that should flood waters continue to rise, this could affect the reactor's service water pumps, which are used to cool the spent-fuel pool.
In the above video interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, which was uploaded to the Fairewinds website on October 29, Gundersen explains that nuclear facilities, shut-down in preparation for severe storms like Sandy, could still contain dangerous radioactive materials in their cooling pools for as long as two days.
“The plant can withstand relatively high winds, but the transmission grid can’t — that’s all those transmission towers that are all over the states,” he says. “So what’s likely to happen is that power lines will go down and the plant will suffer what will call loss of offsite power.”
He explains that this is the same thing that happened at Fukushima in Japan.
He goes on to explain that once offsite power is shut down, the nuclear plants will automatically halt their nuclear chain reaction process, because that energy will have nowhere to go. “The plant needs to drop its power immediately because there is no wire at the other end to send it anywhere if the offsite power is lost,” he says.
Gunderson said that should those facilities preemptively put their nuclear plans on hold, this “will of course minimize the impact: the jarring to the nuclear reactor and its safety systems.”
“There’s 26 power plants in the East Coast that are in the area where Sandy is likely to hit, and hopefully as the storm track becomes better defined, the plants that are most subject to it — likely New Jersey and Pennsylvania - preventively shut down,” Gundersen said.
However, Gundersen continues, “When offsite power is lost, the plant is forced to dramatically reduce power real quickly and then it still needs to be cooled.”
Referring to the diesel-powered generators that control the reservoirs, he continues, “You’ll hear in the next two days, ‘we’ve shut down the plant, but what that means is they stopped the chain reaction. But what Fukushima taught us was that that doesn’t stop the decay heat. There is still as much as 5 percent of the power from the power plant that doesn’t go away when the plant shuts down, and for that you need the diesels to keep the plant cool,”
“Some of these plants have two diesels, and some of these have three diesels, and they are designed so that if one of these fails then they can still get by,” he says. “As the plant operator, as the people running the plant, it’s a little bit of a nervous time to realize that you’re on your last fall-back,” he warns. “You just hope that’s your last fall-back.”
The full transcript of the interview with Gundersen can be read here.
Some facilities, such as Oyster Creek in Lacey, New Jersey, have already shut down for a refueling outage. and routine maintenance has already allowed the facility a few days to cool down. However, across the east coast other sites might pose a risk.
However, Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner told Bloomberg News by email, “Some plants seem likely to lose access to grid power, possibly for extended periods of time."
“This is not uncommon, and they have had some warning of it, which Fukushima did not. They also have Fukushima itself to thank for advance warning of the possibility of extensive flooding and so should be reasonably well prepared.”
“All plants have flood protection above the predicted storm surge, and key components and systems are housed in watertight buildings capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds and flooding,” the NRC said.
"Given the breadth and intensity of this historic storm, the NRC is keeping a close watch on all of the nuclear power plants that could be impacted," NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane said.