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, mapcruzin.com.