Nuclear plants performed well during Sandy – as expected by professionals

One of the best things about nuclear energy is that the fuel is cheap and densely concentrated. That characteristic enables facilities to be hardened against external events, and has the potential to reduce the vulnerability of nuclear energy facilities to infrastructure damage that happens outside of the facility.

The low cost fuel also enables a larger portion of the resources provided by selling a valuable product like electricity to be used for investments in people; highly-trained, well-motivated staffs are a powerful asset at nuclear power stations that enable safe response to rare events. I will refrain from calling the events unexpected; there are few groups of people in the world who are more imaginative in building scenarios of what might go wrong than those who are involved in accident analysis or disaster preparedness at nuclear power plants.

As someone who has a pretty good understanding of the inside story of nuclear energy facilities in the United States, I published the following tweet just before 6:00 am on October 28, 2012

Rod Adams ‏@Atomicrod
WHEN #nuclear plants on US east coast weather yet another large storm, will more people realize they are an asset rather than a threat?

The Nuclear Energy Institute has published a summary of the performance of the 34 nuclear facilities that are located in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. The score is pretty impressive – of the 34 plants in the path, 24 kept providing power, 7 were already shutdown for scheduled maintenance and 3 experienced automatic protective actions due to storm related disturbances in the grid or in supporting systems. The crews at the plants took appropriate actions and there was never any risk to the public.

Of course, some of the usual suspects who have either never liked nuclear energy or who hold a personal grudge against the established nuclear industry were able to find receptive audiences for their usual servings of fear, uncertainty and doubt. Democracy Now asked their favorite “former nuclear industry senior vice president”, Arnie Gundersen to explain why people who have plenty of more important concerns should be distracted by worry about what might happen at distant nuclear plants. Russia Today provided Professor Chris Busby with another venue for reaching potential customers for the anti-radiation pills left over from his Fukushima related sales effort. Kevin Kamps, from Beyond Nuclear, and Peter Bradford, a former NRC commissioner who has served on the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists for many years, made appearances and provided their reliable quotes about why storms like Sandy show that nuclear energy facilities are especially vulnerable – in their opinion.

Though they did not get the same kind of national news coverage, there was much more useful and fact-based commentary by people like Will Davis (Spent Fuel Pool at Oyster Creek and a series of storm sitreps on Atomic Power Review), Dr. Jim Conca (Don’t Politicize Sandy – Hurricane Normal Problem for Nukes and Bob Apthorpe (@arclight) explaining how nuclear professionals take storms seriously so that the public can focus on more important and immediate concerns.

I do want to go back to something I said in the first paragraph – the basic characteristics of nuclear fuel, including its incredible energy density, make it possible to design nuclear facilities that are not vulnerable to infrastructure damage outside of the plant. Designers of our current fleet of commercial power plants, however, did not do a great job of taking advantage of that characteristic. For a variety of reasons, they often have to shutdown 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. As a former submarine officer, I never did figure out why people chose to design grid dependent nuclear systems. There were no transmission lines connected to the facilities I learned to operate; I am pretty sure that my aircraft carrier trained colleagues would make the same statement.

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13 Responses to “Nuclear plants performed well during Sandy – as expected by professionals”

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  1. Mark says:

    The BEST thing about nuclear energy is that the fuel is cheap and densely concentrated.

  2. Brian Mays says:

    When the reactors that comprise the current fleet of nuclear plants in the US were being designed, it was assumed that they would be operated like the coal plants of the day: run a little while and shut down; clean whatever needs to be cleaned, fix whatever needs to be fixed; then start up again. This is how the plants were operated several decades ago, which is why the early capacity factors of the older plants are dismal by today’s standards.

    Why would anyone put the effort into designing the plant to operate during a hurricane if the plant was going to be shut down every now and then anyway? That would be just another outage.

    Experience has taught us better.

    • Rob Brixey says:

      @Brian:

      Some CANDU plants can lower power quicklly to “self sustaining” values.
      Here’s how that helps.
      When the grid becomes unstable, which can be from a wide area external event such as a hurricane, or something as transient as a solar storm – many plants suffer load rejection trips / scrams. That removes the plant as a generator for the grid AND it removes its own Aux Transformers as a source of power for the plant itself. This can quickly become a Loss of Offsite Power – only a few Emergency Diesel start failures away from a Station Blackout.

      By now, no explanation of the safety significance of Station Blackouts should be needed.

      Plants that can quickly follow load can reduce their power to provide their own internal loads – thus avoiding the first domino in the sequence of a rather risky transient.

      Everyone’s favorite Navy reactors can provide self sustaining “hotel loads” with a good deal of stability – it’s a good idea for the big plants too.

  3. Michael Karnerfors says:

    Nice post Rod.

    By the way: you don’t need to call Busby “professor” any more. Univ. of Ulster seems to have excised him.

    • Joel Riddle says:

      I am just shocked that a person of such integrity as Busby would be let go!!!

      (If that didn’t set off your sarcasm meter, you better go get it re-calibrated.)

  4. Jeff Walther says:

    It would be interesting to read how coal and natural gas plants fared. Were any windmills in the hurricane’s path?

  5. William Vaughn says:

    @Rob
    I note that the wiki page on “Load following power plants” points out that the French PWRs use something called “grey” control rods to adjust their power output. Is there some licensing restriction that prevents US plants using the same technology or is there some technical reason why older plants like Oyster Creek can’t be upgraded?

    I find it a curious engineering mindset that these plants weren’t originally designed to follow there own electrical load if and when it became necessary.
    Why did the designers want to be so dependent upon the grid? It seems to me to be a design flaw and It is simply more fodder to feed critics like Busby.

    • jmdesp says:

      Actually the French PWR today mostly use bore injection for load following.
      The bore guarantees a better, more even regulation of power inside the vessel.

      The EPR will make more use of grey control rods, as it’s being conceived from start to solve the difficulties it can involves.

  6. Keith BSNE '77 PE says:

    Rod, On SSBN 631 we had a “battleshort” switch in the alley(like you did), I pulled 9 DPM on a fast scram recovey in 1972. 1,000MWe plants don’t have battleshort, they pull rods at 0.25 DPM, they are on a different mission and the plants are built with cost involved, not like Navy. Navy plant always has a load T/Gs or shaft, A sub plant could load follow and their fuel would not fail. Quad Cites and I think Dresden tried the load following in early 70’s, not good, fuel failures. (talk to old GE nuke about “PCIOMR”) If you lose grid, where does the 1,000MWe go? nowhere, so trip your plant. I wanted to keep the boat power going to save boat/crew, if civilian plant goes down, no one dies.

  7. James Greenidge says:

    A freebie PSA seed for Ben Heard to try:

    Scene; a lovely meadow in the Outback where cute frilly little girls are plucking flowers. After a long pause, voice-over; “In this fresh natural meadow, these girls are being exposed to (X) times more radiation than exists in the towns around the freak rare zero-causality incident at Fukushima, but there are many who don’t want you to hear that…” As scene fades the camera pulls back to a soot-belching coal/oil plant on the horizon.

    Sweet and simple and non-techie and heart-tugger to boot.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY