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Monstrous hurricanes reveal serious flaws in U.S. nuclear emergency plans

One record-breaking “100-year hurricane” after another battered the U.S. Gulf Coast region, first in Texas and then Florida, affecting six reactor units at three nuclear power stations, just two weeks apart. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are demonstrating the devastating cost and consequences of increasingly extreme weather and climate change.  But ponder how much worse the human suffering, economic losses and an already astronomical cost of recovery could have been if these hurricanes had triggered nuclear accidents and radioactive contamination like Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. It was that radioactive catastrophe that blocked the emergency response to those trapped as victims of the natural disaster and stifled the recovery to date.

Beyond Nuclear had called upon the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to prudently protect public health and safety by shutting down the six nuclear generator units well in advance of the hurricanes’ making landfall. The group wanted those six reactors in the safest and most reliable condition, cold shutdown, before experiencing hurricane conditions. At first, the operators feinted they would shut down the atomic power plants, then abruptly reversed their decisions and operated the units as the massive storms slightly altered course, brushing the reactors. In the end, South Texas Project Units 1 & 2 operated throughout Hurricane Harvey. Florida Power & Light shut down Turkey Point 3 in advance of Hurrican Irma’s arrival but kept Unit 2 operational until a main feed water valve tripped, possibly on a split second perturbation on the electric grid, causing the unit to SCRAM. St. Lucie 1 & 2 operated at 100% power until salt starting caking in Unit 1’s switchyard prompting the operator to power that unit down.

None of the Texas and Florida reactors experienced sustained winds in excess of 73 mph that would have required shutdown. None of the six units experienced complete “loss of offsite power” with grid failure which is supposed to automatically shut down the reactors. The reactors never experienced “the loss of ultimate heat sink” where the reactors cooling water pumps fail from storm surge.  But none of this means that the operating reactors were immune storm hazards, with the reactors pressurized to 2000 pounds per square inch so that water temperature in the steam generators primary coolant loop was maintained at 600o Fahrenheit. 

Both hurricanes’ spawned tornadoes that suddenly drop down out of rain bands and thunderstorms without warning. In Texas, Harvey fostered 317 tornado warnings, more than the last two years combined for the entire state. Thirty tornadoes were reported on the Texas Gulf coast. The incidents of tornadoes generated by Irma is still being tallied but, “Two thunderstorms capable of creating tornadoes have also been spotted over the Saint Lucie Nuclear Power Plant.” Tornadoes can initiate a loss of offsite power and their high winds generate missiles threatening safety-related systems. In 1992, wind-blown missiles from Hurricane Andrew punctured an onsite oil storage tank spilling 110,000 gallons of combustible fuel over the reactor site and toppled a high tank simultaneously destroying the reactors’ fire protection system. Luckily, there was no ignition that might have caused a significant fire at the reactor site where just such an event provides 50% of NRC’s recognized risk for initiating a reactor meltdown.

Beyond Nuclear is concerned not just about extent of plant site conditions with a hurricane direct hit. The size and ferocity of these storms demonstrated impacts on the nuclear power stations’ radiological emergency planning zones that can extend well beyond the designated 10-mile radius “evacuation planning zone” and a 50-mile radius “ingestion planning zone.”

The state and federal nuclear emergency plans do not adequately account for unrealistic evacuation time estimates for a nuclear accident. Populations in harm’s way from the hurricane had days, even weeks to prepare to evacuate. A nuclear accident may only provide a matter of hours to escape radiation exposure.  Radiological emergency planning for the simultaneous occurrence of natural disaster and nuclear catastrophe does not account for a storm impeding evacuation by blocking escape routes with debris and flooding. The designated “reception centers” outside of the 10-mile emergency planning zone for receiving and decontaminating evacuees from a nuclear disaster could experience storm conditions prompting “mandatory evacuation” of the centers. Bay City, Texas, one of two reception centers for South Texas Project, was under mandatory evacuation orders for several days in anticipation of flooding up to ten feet. Designated first responders such as doctors, hospital workers, first responders and evacuation bus drivers would not have been available for a radiological emergency. Houston firefighters were not available as designated to respond to an emergency at the nuclear power station.  

The Florida reception centers are designated for post-nuclear accident distribution of potassium iodide (KI). KI is administered for safe and effective protection of the thyroid from exposure to cancer-causing radioactive iodine-131, one of the fastest traveling radioactive gases released during a severe accident at a nuclear plant. Beyond Nuclear supports the American Thyroid Association recommendation to pre-distribute KI directly to populations within the 50-mile radius of nuclear power stations and stockpiling out to 200 miles in schools, hospitals and police stations. In this way, vulnerable populations can take KI as soon as notified, especially if reception centers are inaccessible or inoperable. However, Texas is one of seven states that does not even stockpile KI and is without a distribution plan for prophylactic protection of those most vulnerable populations of infants, children and pregnant women.   

Gambling with the odds of a nuclear accident and its radioactive consequences, however remote, for the sake of saving the nuclear industry some money and prioritizing its power agenda over public health and safety is increasingly unacceptable. The growing availability of safe, affordable and clean renewable energy further makes nuclear power and its threat increasingly unnecessary.

Listen to more on the hurricanes' impacts on the nuclear power stations on "The Nuclear Hotseat."