About the SA Blog Network



Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

Does Sandy Mean We Should Have Fewer Nukes, or More?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Email   PrintPrint

I’ve been trying to come up with something to say about Sandy that hasn’t already been asserted and questioned and reasserted and so on. So I thought I’d talk about how nuclear plants weathered the storm.

As I mentioned in a previous post, environmentalists in my hometown and throughout New York want to permanently close the Indian Point nuclear plant, which they see as a potential “Fukushima on the Hudson,” as the green group Riverkeeper put it. Similar fears have led Germany and other nations to plan to phase out nuclear energy. Sandy posed a major test to the safety of Indian Point—which is less than 10 miles from my home–and other nuclear plants in the heavily populated Northeast. So how did the nukes fare?

Here are the facts, as summarized by the Nuclear Energy Institute (an industry group). Sandy passed over a total of 34 reactors in states ranging from North Carolina to Vermont. Of these, 7 had been shut down before the storm for refueling or inspection; 24 kept generating power throughout the storm (although in some cases at reduced levels); three were shut down during the storm because of high water levels or irregularities in the electrical grid.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also issued an “alert” at the Oyster Creek plant in Lacey Township, New Jersey, which had been shut down for refueling, because of high water levels at the facility. Indian Point 3 was one of the reactors shut down because of problems in the grid. The other Indian Point reactor operated at full power throughout the storm.

Different observers spun these facts in different ways. The president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, Marvin Fertel, said: “Hurricane Sandy once again demonstrates the robust construction of nuclear energy facilities, which are built to withstand extreme flooding and hurricane-force winds that are beyond that historically reported for each area.”

“‘Frankenstorm’ Causes Only Minor Irregularities at Affected Nuclear Plants,” Bill Sweet wrote in IEEE Spectrum, an engineering magazine. “All in all, safety and protection systems appear to have worked as intended,” Sweet concluded.

On the other hand, Arnie Gunderson, a former nuclear-industry executive turned critic, contended on the radio show “Democracy Now” that the tidal surge at Oyster Creek came within six inches of flooding the plant’s cooling pumps, which were needed to keep fuel rods from overheating. Global warming, Gunderson contended, poses a growing threat to the safety of nuclear plants. “The Oyster Creek event was like a one-in-a-thousand-year kind of a flood, and it happened,” Gunderson said. He added that “we need to re-evaluate whether these plants could withstand” the increased risks posed by global warming.

Phillip Lipscy, a political scientist at Stanford, and two colleagues offered a similar assessment in The Washington Post. Sandy, they said, provided “an important reminder that the United States has several low-lying nuclear plants on the Eastern seaboard, with minimal protection against inundation. Particularly with climate change increasing the likelihood of extreme weather, this hidden threat to public safety should be remedied.”

Next I checked the blog of Rod Adams, a nuclear advocate and former nuclear-submarine officer, who helped allay my concerns about nuclear energy after Fukushima. Adams, predictably, claimed that Sandy demonstrated the safety of nuclear power, and he expressed the hope that post-Sandy more people will see nuclear plants as assets rather than threats. Less predictably, Adams suggested that the performance of the plants during Sandy could have been better, because after all three reactors did stop operating during the storm.

“For a variety of reasons,” Adams explained, U.S. nuclear reactors “often have to shut down if there is an issue with off-site power or cooling water intakes. I have it on good authority that at least some of the systems being conceived today include design choices that make them more resilient, with the ability to keep powering on through events that would trip our older reactors.” This is an important point of convergence between critics and proponents of nuclear power. Both agree that steps can and should be taken to make nuclear energy safer and more reliable.

So here are the lessons that I draw from Sandy. Global warming is increasing the probability and destructiveness of extreme weather events like Sandy. (I don’t see the point of dithering over this claim any more.) The last thing we should do in the face of this threat is abandon nuclear energy. If anything, we need more nuclear power, not less, to curb global warming. But we must also do more to ensure that reactors can safely weather future Frankenstorms.

Map showing nuclear facilities by in path of Sandy by Michael Meuser,


John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Rights & Permissions

Comments 18 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. Sisko 10:21 am 11/2/2012

    The disaster in Japan was not due to the use of nuclear power, was due to very poor planning in the use of nuclear power in Japan. The Japanese could have very easily and inexpensively protected their back-up power supplies and prevented the disaster. The Japanese could have also modernized their nuclear facilities rather that continuing to operate plants years after their design life.

    So what is the goal? Is it to generate clean reliable electricity? Modern nuclear power such as 4th generation power plants or potentially thorium based power plants are or can be clean and efficient. The only impediment is government making them more costly by the imposition of inefficient and disjointed regulatory processes that make construction of new plants more than twice as expensive as necessary by making projects take much longer than necessary.

    Link to this
  2. 2. vapur 10:43 am 11/2/2012

    quotes, “Global warming is increasing the probability and destructiveness of extreme weather events like Sandy. (I don’t see the point of dithering over this claim any more.)”

    Just because you don’t know what causality is and the three conditions for it, does not make your statement any more truthful, scientific, or an opinion worthy to command authority. It makes it an ideology based on flawed assumptions and observations.

    Link to this
  3. 3. tharter 11:18 am 11/2/2012

    Sisko: Are you implying the same things don’t apply here in the US? I would suggest looking at (just as an example) VT Yankee, which has just been licensed to continue on into its 61st-80th years of operation. This is a GE reactor identical to those at Fukushima. There is at least as much fuel stored there as there was at any of the reactor units at Fukushima. The location and provisioning of generator capacity is no more robust than that at Fukushima either.

    I guess we do such a much better job here in the US. Gosh I’m glad I can rest easy.

    Truthfully it is VERY hard to evaluate the overall quality of the US regulatory regime by comparison to the Japanese one. Up to last March it would have been quite reasonable to argue that they were roughly equivalent (given similar overall safety records etc). Is the NRC really just super spiffy, or have we been lucky so far? I know what you will CLAIM, but you have no basis to make any claim on.

    Yes more modern reactors are in theory safer. The problem is people don’t manage risk well. These super safe facilities will simply be neglected to a greater degree because the only degree of safety that matters to the operators is the least they can get away with, and ‘get away with’ means things probably won’t melt on their watch. Technical solutions to safety are just self-delusion.

    Link to this
  4. 4. sjn 11:38 am 11/2/2012

    In regards to your article on Sandy & nuclear power, personally I am still agnostic regarding the future role of nuclear power in the solutions to global warming. I will leave aside for the moment, our total inability to find any solutions to the storage of nuclear waste, or address the safety issues around impacts of uranium mining on adjacent communities (particular since most US mines were/are located on indigenous lands).

    However, in light of your analysis, I would like to see you address the issue of the re-licensing and extension of the operating licenses for the older generation of nuclear power plants.

    To me there are several concerns for this issue:
    – the ones you raise regarding poor designs for stability in extreme (or “new normal” ) weather events
    – the fact that from what I have read, many of the original designers have stated they never expected these plants designs to operate past their original 40 year license
    – as a subset of the second item, my own experiences in graduate school & since, that the nuclear engineering discipline has never been able to resolve the issue of aging effects from radiation damage to key components, such as stress failures due to radiation induced embrittlement of steel cooling lines etc. When I was a physics graduate student in the late 1970′s this was one of the major area of research in the nuclear engineering dept., indicating to me the seriousness of the issue. Since then i have followed very under-reported accounts that a large # of these aging plants suffer from serious weaknesses in their internal cooling & emergency cooling lines as a result of such damage.

    For the above reasons, I believe at a minimum we should not be giving additional 20 – 40 year license extensions to this aging generation of nuclear power plants & would like to see you address this issue in future articles.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Sisko 12:59 pm 11/2/2012


    I did not write that the US is doing any better.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Raoul 2:17 pm 11/2/2012

    About energy: I think nobody has realized on global warming as an increasing energy storing. The Matter is how to convert it into Electricity, for example. Any idea?

    Link to this
  7. 7. alan6302 3:13 pm 11/2/2012

    The Indonesian earthquake gave Japan plenty of warning. The crop formations are giving us plenty of warning too. Don’t worry the elite knows best.

    Link to this
  8. 8. todyoung 7:06 pm 11/2/2012

    Raoul has an interesting view. I hope some scientists are paying attention.

    Link to this
  9. 9. kongrooo 7:40 pm 11/2/2012

    More dude more, we always need more!

    Link to this
  10. 10. jerryd 9:55 pm 11/2/2012

    What we need are safer nukes and get rid of the present more dangerous ones. Far smaller in the 50-399MW size using no pressure reactors that burn up all the fuel leaving little waste.

    That said the low cost way is making your own power by solar, wind, biomass, etc. RE is simple machines, devices, more simple than a moped or A/C unit run backward as a heat motor. In mass production all these can be made and sold retail for under $2k/kw and last 20-5 yrs!!

    The beauty of these is there costs doesn’t go up like any untility bill always will. And the ‘problems’ they ‘have’ all have simple solutions. A combo of any 2 for a total of 4kw or $8k can power an eff home and EV’s for transport at far lower costs than any other source in 2-4 yrs worth of utility, oil costs one has now. Then another 20-50 yrs of almost free power.

    Or stay a serf to big energy, Your choice

    Link to this
  11. 11. Carlyle 2:20 am 11/3/2012

    6. Raoul & 8. todyoung
    To operate any type of heat engine, energy has to pass from a hot side to a cold side. It does work on its way between the two. The greater the temperature difference between the two, the greater the potential recoverable energy. With a very low temperature differential, the potential energy is also low even if the actual quantity is vast. Imagine a huge river that was only flowing at the rate of one mile over several days. There is no practical way of recovering the energy. If you are interested in energy & heat engines I suggest you start by learning about the rankin cycle.

    Link to this
  12. 12. dwbd 1:04 pm 11/3/2012

    Tharter, you are talking more nonsense. The Fukushima problem was caused by an unpredicted 15 meter tsunami, that swamped the generators & switchgear which was located in the basement. You expecting a 15m tsunami in New York? They got max 3m with Sandy and that was right on the coast. The Daini plants withstood a bigger tsunami. Simple-minded problem & simple-minded solution, just don’t put your gensets & switchgear in the basement. Build more robust fuel storage – that’s easy, and keep diesel powered pumps handy – they’ve done that. So enough of your despicable fear-mongering, you don’t have a clue what you are talking about.

    And Nuclear has the best safety record of ANY industry in the USA, how much better do you want? 100X better than your Natural Gas substitute. It don’t take much of a regulator – or any regulator to have the sense to locate generators above max water height. That ain’t rocket science. If you can’t figure that out then you better shut down ALL power generation in the USA because we can’t do ANYTHING safely.

    “..Technical solutions to safety are just self-delusion…”

    One of the stupidest statements EVER. Yep, Tharter wants all seat belts, air bags, emergency brakes etc removed from cars. No point to that. All of the 100′s of safety protection devices added to aircraft removed – he claims they are all self-delusion.

    All energy sources have risks, a RATIONAL strategy is to minimize risk, and use the Energy source with the LOWEST risk, i.e. Nuclear:

    Deaths per TWh of energy:

    Coal: 161
    Oil: 36
    Biomass: 12
    NG: 4
    Hydro: 1.4
    Wind: 0.15
    Nuclear: 0.04

    Link to this
  13. 13. dwbd 1:17 pm 11/3/2012

    sjn claims: “..our total inability to find any solutions to the storage of nuclear waste..”

    Bull. Their are multitudes of EASY solutions to the trivial amount of nuclear waste, a coke can full for one american’s lifetime supply of electricity. ONLY Nuclear contains its wastes – a million times less than comparable fossil fuel waste. Obvious thing is store the waste – dry cask storage is simple, robust, cheap and quite suitable for a hundred years yet. And start burning the waste in GenIV reactors, as India will soon do, and China is already doing. Just the current USA store of 65K tons of spent fuel would generate $70 trillion in clean green energy.

    And radiation induced belittlement has long been studied, they do analyze these things you know, by adjusting core geometry the EPR is designed for an 80 to 100 yr life, including radiation induced issue. Don’t make ridiculous statements.

    It is routine to evaluate the safety of aging Nuclear power plants, just as they do for aging aircraft. The proof is in the pudding, Nuclear has the best safety record of any industry. Only one public safety accident in a commercial reactor EVER! And that was a ZERO-DEATH accident & a worst case accident in an ancient 50′s designed reactor subjected to a 500 yr earthquake & tsunami. Vs substitute Oil refineries and NG pipelines blowing up every week – no natural disasters needed – and killing thousands of people. Curious how you ain’t worried about that. With terrible Natural gas fires, leaks and risks that occurred during Hurricane Sandy.

    Link to this
  14. 14. jerryd 7:48 pm 11/3/2012

    DWBD actually a much higher tsunumi has hit NY in the past and wiped out much of the US east coast where a landslide underwater off the Azores happened in the distant past. This threat is still there.

    Link to this
  15. 15. dwbd 8:56 pm 11/3/2012

    jerry, if that 50 metre tsunami hits New York, a meltdown at a Nuclear power plant would be at the very bottom of the list of disasters. Curious how know one is interested in preparing for that calamity but is all worried about the one in a million years problem at a nuclear power plant. 50 meter tsunami hits Indian point – you know damn well any bright, technical person could prepare for that event and handle it, as I would and you would. Not hard to tsunami proof a diesel pump & fuel supply, maintain cooling to the rapidly dropping heat rate of the core and problems avoided. It ain’t rocket science.

    And as for being a serf to big energy. That is EXACTLY what you are doing. Big Oil is the #1 promoter, financier and instigator of Wind & Solar energy. As well as other bait-and-switch scams like Hydrogen economy, Carbon Capture, Agro-fuels. Notice how they don’t promote or invest in Nuclear but funnel 10′s of $billions to fund each and every rabidly anti-nuclear, pro-renewables ENGO. Pretty obvious that they know very well what their REAL competition is.

    Link to this
  16. 16. stock 4:24 am 11/5/2012

    Nuke is a joke that has failed us time and time again.

    Nuke doesnt make economic sense, see here how Kewaunee plant is being shut on economics

    Link to this
  17. 17. dwbd 8:41 pm 11/5/2012

    Notice how quickly Greenies change their tune about Global Warming mitigation, when “the N word” is mentioned. Suddenly, the 4.4 million tonnes of CO2 that Kewaunee could avoid every year is “not important”. Global warming – “don’t get excited”. Subsidies for Kewaunee for all that Carbon avoided – “we can’t afford that”.

    But take “the N word” out of the conversation, and suddenly stock & his ilk are SCREAMING “we must stop GHG emission” “we must invest in wind” “money is no object”. So they demand Renewable Portfolio standards which FORCE Utilities to pay INCREDIBLE subsidies to get some pittance of hyper-expensive renewable and FORCE them to accept the worthless Wind power whether they want it or not. And of course being forced to buy worthless Wind power, pushes the price down for all other electricity which hurts the economics of the cleaner & greener Nuclear. To add misery to madness Stock’s Wind Energy, at 4X the cost of Nuclear, DOES NOT reduce emissions.

    Link to this
  18. 18. dwbd 8:44 pm 11/5/2012

    The truth about the Kewanunee shutdown:

    “..Farrell said, “The situation Dominion faces with Kewaunee is the result of circumstances unique to the station and do not reflect the nuclear industry in general. The nation will be hard-pressed to meet its energy needs, let alone do so in a secure and affordable manner, without a robust and growing nuclear energy program..”

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Email this Article