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Hurricane Florence is taking aim at two nuclear power plants

Scientists are worried that the plants haven’t made adequate preparations for the storm.

by Alex Lubben
Sep 13 2018, 7:42pm

At least two major nuclear power plants are at risk for severe flooding as Hurricane Florence barrels toward the East Coast.

There are 16 reactors in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, the states that are likely to be most affected by Florence, and most of them are well inland and won’t see the storm’s worst. Two of those plants, however, are worth keeping an eye on, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Surry plant, operated by Dominion Energy, near Williamsburg, Virginia, and the Brunswick plant, near Wilmington, North Carolina, are both located in areas where heavy rainfall is expected.

Some scientists are worried that the plants haven’t made adequate preparations for the storm — and that with storms getting worse due to climate change, the current regulations won’t be enough to keep nuclear plants from flooding and melting down.

Back in 2011, a flooded nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan melted down and led to the evacuation of some 170,000 people. Since then, the U.S. has upped its standards on nuclear plants. But as recently as March of 2018, U.S.’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the government organization responsible for regulating nuclear power, found that most plants still don’t meet the new standards for flooding.

The Brunswick plant was in the process of shutting down its two reactors on Thursday to prepare for Florence, according to Reuters, tying down loose equipment and conducting inspections to make sure everything stays safe.

“They also have temporary barriers that they can install to protect from higher levels. We’re satisfied that they have protection up to what storm surge might be expected,” Roger Hannah, an NSC public affairs officer, told VICE News. “We’ve got backups for backups,” Mary Kathryn Green, a spokesperson for Duke Energy, told Reuters.

When a storm hits, the main concerns for a nuclear plant are wind, which can cause power outages at the plant, and flooding, which could damage equipment. To that end, all plants have backup diesel power generators on site to keep a meltdown from happening in the event of a power outage, and storm surge barriers and pumps to limit the effects of flooding.

But the estimates for how much wind or flooding a facility can withstand are based on the up-to-date assessments for storm surge and flooding — not future projections — and don’t take into account the changing climate.

Hurricane Florence is was still making its way toward the East Coast on Thursday, currently rated as an enormous Category 2 storm.It is expected to slow as it makes landfall and linger over much of the Mid-Atlantic coast, dumping huge amounts of rain. No one is sure what the impact will be until it lands.

“Some of the worst case projections could exceed even the reevaluated flood level at a place like Brunswick, depending on where it goes and how long it stalls,” said Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist with the global security program with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The latest NOAA forecasts indicate that Florence’s storm surge could rise as high as 13 feet. According to a 2017 report from the NRC, even after Fukushima, the Brunswick reactor buildings are only prepared for a maximum storm surge of 7 feet.

Lyman told VICE News that he doesn’t think even the post-Fukushima nuclear standards were high enough. “The U.S. nuclear industry was very anxious not to spend a lot of money after Fukushima,” he said, noting that heap natural gas and renewables have eclipsed nuclear energy in recent years. “The industry is [economic] under strain — they’re not looking for capital expenditures on equipment they may never use.”

Back in 2012, Superstorm Sandy sent storm water into the water intake systems at two nuclear plants in New Jersey, causing them to shut down.

There are eight nuclear plants in the U.S. that are at risk from sea level rise by the end of the century, according to a HuffPost and investigation. The Brunswick plant is one of them.

Cover image: A street is seen as the outer bands of Hurricane Florence hits in New Bern, North Carolina, United States on September 13, 2018. Hurricane Florence is expected to arrive on Friday along the North Carolina and South Carolina coastline. (Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)