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.