Hurricane Sandy May Score a Direct Hit On Spent Fuel Pools at Nuclear Plant

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Preface:  We hope and expect that the severity of the hurricane is being overblown, and that the nuclear plants in the Northeast will ride out the storm without any incident.  

UPDATE: Flooding already reported near Oyster Creek nuclear plant in NJ — Road closed on bay, dune lines breached (PHOTO)

We noted Friday that .

Nuclear expert Arnie Gundersen says that there are actually 26 nuclear plants in the path of the hurricane, and that the spent fuel pools in the plants don't have backup pumps (summary via EneNews):

  • You’ll hear in the next 2 days, “We’ve safely shutdown the plant”
  • What Fukushima taught us is that doesn’t stop the decay heat
  • You need the diesels to keep the reactors cool
  • 26 plants in the East Coast are in the area where Sandy is likely to hit
  • Fuel pools not cooled by diesels, no one wanted to buy them
  • If recent refuel, hot fuel will throw off more and more moisture from pool
  • Reactor buildings not meant to handle the high humidity
  • Fuel pool liner not really designed to approach boiling water, may unzip if water gets too hot
  • A lot of problems with allowing fuel pool to over
  • Need water in around 2 days if hot fuel in pool
  • The only fall-back if power is lost is to let fuel pools heat up

EneNews also reports that the hurricane is forecast to directly hit the Oyster Creek nuclear plant and that - while the plant is currently shut down for refueling - it still might very well have new, very hot fuel in the fuel pools:

Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station is located near New Jersey’s shoreline in an area forecast to take a direct hit from Hurricane Sandy: “The current ‘track center’ for the landfall path is central New Jersey pointing Sandy in a path that would hit Oyster Creek nuclear station.” -SimplyInfo

 

With Oyster Creek shut down for refueling starting last week, hot fuel may have been placed in the fuel pool quite recently.

 

The unit at Oyster Creek is the same as Fukushima Daiichi No. 1: “Oyster Creek is one of the oldest US nuclear plants and is the same design as Fukushima unit 1.” -SimplyInfo

Remember, Fukushima reactor number 4 was shut down for maintenance when the Japanese earthquake hit.  And yet the fuel pools at reactor 4 are in such precarious condition that they pose a giant threat to humanity.

Hurricane Sandy is not very intense in terms of wind speed.  But the storm is so large - 174 mile diameter of hurricane force winds, surrounded by 1,378 mile diameter of tropical storm force winds -  that storm surges could be 11 feet high.  In the area of Oyster Creek, the storm surge could be the highest ever recorded.

@But the real danger is a power outage. As Gundersen said today:

The biggest problem, as I see it right now, is the Oyster Creek plant, which is on Barnegat Bay in New Jersey. That appears to be right about the center of the storm. Oyster Creek is the same design, but even older than Fukushima Daiichi unit 1. It’s in a refueling outage. That means that all the nuclear fuel is not in the nuclear reactor, but it’s over in the spent fuel pool. And in that condition, there’s no backup power for the spent fuel pools. So, if Oyster Creek were to lose its offsite power—and, frankly, that’s really likely—there would be no way cool that nuclear fuel that’s in the fuel pool until they get the power reestablished. Nuclear fuel pools don’t have to be cooled by diesels per the old Nuclear Regulatory Commission regulations. I hope the Nuclear Regulatory Commission changes that and forces the industry to cool its nuclear fuel pools, as well.

This time of year, there’s a lot of power plants in refueling outages. And all of those plants will be in a situation where there’s no fuel in the nuclear reactor; it’s all in the fuel pool. Systems have been shut down to be maintained, including diesels, perhaps even completely dismantled. And in the event that there’s a loss of offsite power from the high winds from this hurricane, we will see the water in the fuel pools begin to heat up.

***

This isn’t like the Big Bad Wolf. They can huff and puff, and they won’t blow this plant down, especially a hurricane that’s only 85-mile-an-hour winds. It’s not a question of the winds from this hurricane blowing the plant down. It’s a question of the loss of offsite power. That’s exactly what happened after Fukushima Daiichi. The earthquake destroyed the offsite power. At that point, the nuclear plant relies on its diesels. And my big concern is diesel reliability and the fact that nuclear plants don’t have to cool their nuclear fuel pools off their diesels per NRC regulations. I think those are the two big concerns for Hurricane Sandy.


Obviously, the path of the hurricane could veer substantially, and may not hit Oyster Creek after all ... weather forecasting is not an exact science.  But Gundersen argues that nuclear plants in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are in the most danger given current projections.

 

As we noted Friday, the Salem and Hope Creek plants in New Jersey are also near the path of the hurricane, as are the following plants in Pennsylvania:

  • Peach Bottom
  • Limerick
  • Three Mile Island
  • Susquehanna

Another concern is the Millstone plant in Connecticut:

A mild winter and hot July are cited as reasons water from Long Island Sound has become too warm for Millstone Power Station in Connecticut, a nuclear plant, to use for cooling.

EneNews summarizes the situation in a post entitled "Officials in Connecticut warn of giant 16-foot storm surge, with 15-foot waves on top of that — State’s nuclear plant directly exposed on ocean":

The Hour:

In a message sent to residents Sunday afternoon, [Norwalk, Connecticut] Mayor Richard A. Moccia warned of a 16-foot storm surge brought to land by Hurricane Sandy. [...] “I have declared a state of emergency in the City,” he said. “Coastal flooding from this event will peak at midnight on Monday night and will be worse than any flooding Norwalk has experienced in recent history. If you have ever experienced flooding before it is likely you will be flooded in this storm.” Moccia said that the storm will be equal to a Category 4 hurricane and will produce 16 foot storm surges.

Westport Now:

“The mood during the meeting was tense as federal officials estimated a 13-foot storm surge for Westport  [Connecticut] -– 3 or 4 feet higher that the inundation from Storm Irene last year,” a news release said. “This is an unprecedented storm,” said [First Selectman Gordon Joseloff], following his team’s briefing with federal and state disaster preparedness officials. “This will be a storm of long duration, high winds and record-setting flooding. Take Storm Irene from last year and double it.” he said. [...] The town is bracing for at least three waves of flooding, beginning with the high tide at midnight Sunday, the announcement said. [... An] estimated 15-foot wind-driven waves [...] are expected on top of the storm surge.

According to the Weather Channel’s latest map, a 6 to 11 foot water level rise is forecast for the Connecticut coastline. This is the highest increase of any area in the US. The state’s only nuclear power plant is located directly on the ocean, see marker ‘A’ below:

In July,  AP reported:

Millstone Power Station, Connecticut's sole nuclear plant, is focusing on how best to guard against flooding and earthquakes to comply with tougher federal standards following the nuclear plant meltdown in Japan last year, the new chief of the power station said in an interview.

 

Millstone is assessing its ability to withstand flooding and "seismic events," Stephen E. Scace, who took over as site vice president at Millstone in January, told The Associated Press on Thursday. He expects upgrades and installation of new equipment in the next three to four years.