October 31, 2012 7:31 am

Nuclear reactors shut amid US storm chaos

The darkened lower Manhattan skyline at night in New York on October 30 2012©Bloomberg

Three nuclear reactors on the US east coast were shut down as a result of Monday night’s storm, and three others reduced their output, regulators said late on Tuesday.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission also reported that an alert remained in place at the Oyster Creek plant on the coast of New Jersey, which had been shut for refuelling last week but still requires cooling for its spent fuel.

The NRC said that at all three plants – Unit 1 at the Nine Mile Point facility in New York, Unit 3 at Indian Point, also in New York, and Unit 1 at Salem in New Jersey – “all safety systems responded as designed”.

The Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents the industry, said the performance of the 34 nuclear power facilities in the path of Sandy showed they were “demonstrating their resilience against severe natural forces”.

Of those facilities, 24 remained in operation and seven had previously been shut down, while only three had been shut down because of the storm.

However, the signs of pressure at nuclear plants revived concerns among local residents and environmental campaigners about allowing reactors to operate within 100 miles of large population centres.

The cut in output from the nuclear plants was equivalent to 2.8GW, enough to power 2.2m homes. As many as 750,000 people lost power in New York City during the storm and Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on Tuesday it could be at least three days before electricity supplies are fully restored.

The Unit 1 reactor at Nine Mile Point, owned by a joint venture of Exelon of the US and EDF of France, was shut down at about 9pm on Monday for reasons that are “currently under investigation”, the operators said.

The plant, about 300 miles from New York on the shores of Lake Ontario, was inherited by Chicago-based Exelon when it bought Constellation Energy in March.

Exelon, the largest US nuclear generator, also has a stake in the Salem plant, a joint venture with the Public Service Enterprise Group of New Jersey, sited about 30 miles southwest of Philadelphia.

The Unit 1 reactor at Salem was manually shut down at about 1.09am on Tuesday, as a result of high water levels and storm debris shutting off all six of the condenser circulators used for cooling.

Entergy, the owner of the Indian Point nuclear plant, said the Unit 3 reactor, one of two in operation at the site, shut down at 10.41pm on Monday because of “an electrical grid disturbance”. It added that there had been no release of radiation or damage to equipment, and there was no risk to workers or the public.

John Herron, chief executive of Entergy Nuclear, said in a statement: “Nuclear plants are built to exceed the most severe natural forces historically reported for their geographic area. And we saw evidence of that again with Hurricane Sandy.”

The Indian Point plant has been a controversial site because of its position about 40 miles away from New York.

Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York state, and environmental campaigners have argued that it should be shut down when its licences expire in 2013 and 2015, rather than being given an extension for a further 20 years of operation.

At the Oyster Creek plant, about 70 miles south of New York, the alert raised at 8.44pm on Monday remained in effect on Tuesday evening.

The plant declared an alert after the storm surge and high tide created unusually high water levels in the intakes used for its cooling system.

The threshold for raising an alert is six feet, and the water rose to about 6.6 feet, the plant’s operator said. Oyster Creek also lost off-site power, and was forced to fire up its two on-site diesel generators to cool the shutdown reactor and spent fuel pool.

The NRC said at 5pm on Tuesday that off-site power was being restored, and water levels were beginning to subside, but added: “The plant remains in an Alert status until there is enough confidence levels will remain at more normal levels.”

A declaration of an alert signals a “degradation” of a plant’s safety, but no release of radioactive material dangerous to human health, the NRC says.

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