Editor's Note: This story was updated Sept. 9, 2018.
“Be prepared,” is the Boy Scouts' motto, but it’s the same for the nuclear energy industry as well.
The nuclear industry prides itself on being prepared, whether it is built into the plant’s design through multiple backup systems or careful planning and drilling for events. Inclement weather is a key part of that planning. Procedures are in place at each nuclear facility that govern preparation and operation throughout a major storm. These procedures are shaped by federal guidelines from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and from previous operating experience.
Federal requirements mandate once forecasts call for a storm to strike the plant with sustained winds of greater than 73 miles per hour, the plant must shutdown. The reason for this has less to do with concern over structural damage to the facility and more to do with the potential loss of offsite power.
The power plant structure, in particular the containment building that houses the reactor, is an incredibly robust structure designed to handle mother nature’s fury. Losing offsite power means the station has to rely on backup equipment, such as generators, to provide electricity. Reducing the power output of the plant also reduces the amount of electricity the site needs to operate. This allows those backup systems to keep the core cool.
There are many other practical actions taken by nuclear plants to prepare for a storm.
- In the days leading up to the storm, items that could potentially be blown away or become airborne missiles are tied down.
- A visual inspection of the site is conducted to ensure water and wind will not affect crucial equipment.
- Emergency equipment, such as generators and tractors, are checked to ensure operability.
- Critical supplies are checked and stocked, including assuring there is enough food and water on site to sustain workers in the event they have to stay on site for many days.
Nuclear sites reach out to local and federal emergency preparedness stakeholders in the days leading up to Hurricane Matthew to ensure understanding of the actions being taken. The NRC staffs its Region II Incident Response Center, for example, so that it would be ready if an event were to occur.
While Matthew was the first major hurricane to impact the United States in more than a decade, the industry’s preparation helped the affected sites weather the storm without incident.