As if high winds and storm surge weren’t trouble enough, floods from Hurricane Florence could impact up to 12 nuclear power plants on the United States’ east coast. Are we in danger of a Mile High Island-esque leak or melt-down scenario?
Flo made landfall at 7:15 am on Friday, September 14, 2018, at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. When the epic storm reached the Carolinas, wind speed was clocked at 106 mph which made it a Category 1 hurricane. It had started out at sea as a monstrous Category 4 hurricane with 130 mph sustained winds.
Late that afternoon, the National Hurricane Center downgraded Florence to a tropical storm with 70 mph winds.
Although Flo had slower wind speeds, they were still powerful enough to topple church steeples and blow down cement block walls. And because the hurricane did slow down, it will linger longer over the eastern U.S. states.
Flood waters are already destroying homes and businesses. Will nuclear power plants be next?
“There are 16 nuclear reactors in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, the states expected to suffer the most damage from Florence,” according to U.S. News & World Report.
Drenching rains over North and South Caroline, Virginia, and other states in Flo’s path have already caused extensive power outages throughout coastal areas. Nearly one million homes are without power throughout the Carolinas, as of September 15, 2018.
But high water levels pose another threat to power stations like North Carolina’s Brunswick Steam Electric Plant, Units 1 and 2. These are both Boiling Water Reactors (BWRs) which supply electricity to residential and commercial customers. 38,123 people live within 10 miles of the Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant.
Brunswick can produce 1,870-megawatts (MW) of power. One megawatt can power about 1,000 U.S. homes.
BWRs generate electricity by using heat from the nuclear reactions to turn water into steam that drives steam turbines. They are situated at low elevations near rivers or lakes to provide a steady source of cooling water.
Transferring heat from the nuclear power plant to the atmosphere is critical to keep the nuclear fuel rods from getting too hot and melting down – literally. At that point, expect a runaway nuclear reaction.
The cooling system for BWRs depends on electricity to power the pumps that circulate water in the tanks where the rods are lowered during operation. For that reason, nuclear power plants with BWRs have backup sources like diesel generators and battery arrays.
If high flood waters from Florence submerge the diesel generators, coolant pumps, and backup batteries, causing a full-on power outage at the power plant, the United States will risk having our own Fukushima event.
Worrisome is the fact that the two Brunswick reactors are “almost identical to the GE nuclear power plant design used in the Fukushima-Daiichi reactors in Japan.”
If that happened, crippled nuclear power plants could release radioisotopes into the atmosphere. Two very dangerous ones are Iodine-131 and Cesium-134. Because they have short half-lives, they give off radiation at a high rate. Iodine-131 has a half-life of about eight days. The half-life of Cesium-134 is just over two days, very dangerous indeed.
A 2004 report from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said that all of the safety-related structures at Brunswick were waterproof up to 22 feet above sea level.
As a precautionary measure, Duke Energy Progress, operator and majority owner (81.7%) of the Brunswick facility powered down before the force of Florence was felt:
“Both reactors at Brunswick were shut down on Thursday, September 13, 2018, prior to tropical storm-force winds from Hurricane Florence impacting the plant. Of the nine nuclear power plants in the path of Hurricane Florence, Brunswick was the only nuclear power plant shutdown.”
But flooding after heavy rainfall could cause an incident similar to Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster at any of the other nuclear power reactors that lie along Flo’s watery path.
For example, Duke Energy Corp’s 932-MW Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant in New Hill, North Carolina (20 miles southwest of Raleigh) is at risk from storm surge and flooding after heavy rainfalls. Duke Energy claimed in 2013 that the reactor and steam generators are designed to withstand hurricanes and other weather hazards:
“Its walls are 4 1/2 feet thick and made up of nine layers of steel-reinforced concrete. In addition to multiple safety and plant shutdown systems, in-depth defense and emergency response plans are coordinated and practiced regularly with local, state and federal officials.”
Other power stations that might fall victim to extreme Flo flooding include:
- Duke’s Catawba Nuclear Station in York County, South Carolina
- Duke’s McGuire Nuclear Station in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
- Duke’s Oconee Nuclear Station in Seneca, South Carolina
- Duke’s Robinson Nuclear Plant in Darlington County, South Carolina
- C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville, South Carolina
- Dominion Generation’s North Anna 1 & 2 near Richmond, Virginia
- Dominion Energy Inc’s Surry plant near Newport News, Virginia
As we pray for relief to all victims of Hurricane Florence, let us also hope to avoid a nuclear disaster on U.S. soil. Life as we know it would change forever – and not in a good way.