Thanks to intense storm preparations and layer upon layer of safety systems, 24 nuclear reactors at 15 facilities from North Carolina to New England were fully prepared when Hurricane Irene struck the Eastern Seaboard late this summer.
Operators of the 24 East Coast nuclear energy facilities began preparations several days in advance of the storm, in compliance with U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) guidelines and the plants’ comprehensive emergency preparedness plans.
“We knew we needed to pre-staff our emergency facilities with a key team of responders,” said Mickey Chanda, emergency preparedness manager at Exelon’s Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, located near the New Jersey shoreline. “Together with senior site and corporate leadership, we developed a plan to bring in this team long before travel conditions became hazardous. We met with those employees two days in advance of the storm, explained to them that their only role was to be at their emergency facility and ready to spring to action if needed.”
All nuclear energy operators have multi-day staffing plans to ensure that personnel are on-site and prepared to respond to situations that may arise as a result of a storm. The U.S. nuclear energy industry’s focus on continuous safety training played a key role in preparing plant personnel for Hurricane Irene. Nuclear plant operators are trained and tested every five weeks to safely manage extreme events such as hurricanes.
Employees inspected each facility and secured materials and equipment vulnerable to the storm’s predicted high winds. They tested backup diesel generators to confirm that they were ready to provide electricity for critical operations in the event of a loss of off-site electricity supply. Plant employees also filled fuel tanks to ensure there was a week-long minimum supply of fuel to power the generators, in the event that they were needed.
As the hurricane approached, personnel at nuclear energy facilities along the East Coast monitored weather conditions, paying close attention to the path of the storm and wind speeds. As a precaution, the Oyster Creek reactor was manually taken offline at about 5 p.m. EDT on Saturday, August 26. All nuclear power plants, including Oyster Creek, are required both by their licenses with the NRC and their own operating procedures to shut down a reactor well before hurricane-force winds (typically between 70 and 75 miles per hour) arrive on-site.
Entergy Nuclear operated several facilities in Hurricane Irene’s path: Indian Point Energy Center in Buchanan, N.Y., Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth, Mass., and Vermont Yankee in Brattleboro, Vt. The utility didn’t waste any time getting in touch with their emergency contacts in the federal government.
“Prior to the storm, we had a conference call with the NRC’s Region I Office in in Pennsylvania to make sure they were briefed on our preparation activities,” said Timothy Mitchell, senior vice president and chief operating officer at three of Entergy Nuclear’s plants. “As the hurricane approached, we set up daily calls with the regional administrator for Region I to update him on the conditions at each of the units. The administrator was also being briefed by NRC resident inspectors who were on-site at each facility throughout the duration of the storm.”
The nuclear energy industry has a long history of continuous learning from operational events, and incorporates lessons learned into operating practices and training. According to Mitchell, Entergy Nuclear, which also operates the Waterford 3 facility in Louisiana that survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has learned “thousands of lessons from hurricanes over the years,” including the importance of installing satellite phones and speaking directly with electrical grid operators during a storm.
With everything in place ahead of time, employees at each site were able to successfully operate the reactors when Hurricane Irene struck the Eastern Seaboard and heeded warnings by local officials in case they were called upon to respond to potential, dangerous weather impacts.
Operators at Brunswick Nuclear Plant in North Carolina, Limerick Generating Station in Pennsylvania, and Millstone Power Station in Connecticut temporarily reduced power at their facilities as a precautionary measure and to ensure the electrical grid’s stability.
A reactor at Constellation’s Calvert Cliffs facility in Maryland automatically and safely shut down, as designed, when a large piece of aluminum siding struck a transformer on August 26. The facility’s equipment and systems were not damaged and the reactor was brought back on-line a few days later after inspections were completed.