Friday, November 2, 2012

Fear and Facts about Nuclear Plants and Hurricanes

Hurricane Sandy from Wikipedia
The Fear 

As Hurricane Sandy approached landfall, there were plenty of things to fear.  In the media, some articles focused on the "26 nuclear plants in the path of the hurricane."

This number of plants came from Arnie Gundersen, as far as I can tell. On October 29, Russia Today (RT) headlined "Nuclear  plant alert as 26 facilities in Sandy's path."  RT quoted a Gundersen podcast as follows: “There’s 26 power plants in the East Coast that are in the area where sandy is like to hit, and hopefully as the storm track becomes better defined, the plants that are most subject to it — likely New Jersey and Pennsylvania — preventively shut down.."

Ever since Gundersen stated that a total of sixteen shad remain in the Connecticut River. I don't take Gundersen's numbers as accurate.  Whatever the number of plants, however, is it  dangerous that nuclear plants are in the path of a storm? Well, no.  But it is worth reporting about.

I am aware that nuclear plants have weathered innumerable hurricanes and typhoons. But still,  I don't blame the popular press for looking at "26 plants in the path of the Frankenstorm" as an item of news interest.  After all, Fukushima was caused by a once-in-a-thousand-years tsunami, and now the East Coast was being hit with a Frankenstorm, a perfect blend of hurricane and Nor'easter. Therefore, it was reasonable to report about the nuclear plants and their preparations for the hurricane.  For example, WAMC radio interviewed Vermont Yankee and NRC on storm preparation.

The Fear-Mongers

However, reporting on nuclear plants and their preparations is fairly dull stuff when you can get great soundbytes of impending doom. Here are some of Arnie Gundersen's comments, made on his own podcast, on Russia Today  (RT) and on Democracy Now.

 Gundersen at RT“You’ll hear in the next two days, ‘we’ve shut down the plant,’” he says, “but what that means is they stopped the chain reaction. But what Fukushima taught us was that that doesn’t stop the decay heat...."As the plant operator, as the people running the plant, it’s a little bit of a nervous time to realize that you’re on your last fall-back,” he warns. 

Gundersen at Democracy Now, on October 29.  In this interview, Gundersen concentrated on the Oyster Creek plant, which was in the direct path of the hurricane. Oyster Creek temporarily declared an NRC-required "alert" because of high water at its intake structure.  The alert has long since been lifted.

Meanwhile, here's Gundersen about the plant: Oyster Creek is the same design, but even older than Fukushima Daiichi unit 1....there’s no backup power for the spent fuel pools. So, if Oyster Creek were to lose its offsite power — and, frankly, that’s really likely — there would be no way cool that nuclear fuel that’s in the fuel pool until they get the power reestablished. ... The most important lesson we can take out of the Fukushima Daiichi and climate change, and especially with Hurricane Sandy, is that we can’t expect to cool these fueling pools." 

I wanted to go word by word through these quotes, refuting them.  For one thing, the idea that we were taught about decay heat by Fukushima!  Well, maybe Gundersen just learned recently about decay heat -- if he forgot everything he learned in engineering school. Nuclear plant designers and engineers have always known about decay heat. Nuclear plants sized their diesels and other backup systems in accordance with requirements to handle decay heat.
Part of the logo of ANS Nuclear Cafe Blog

Spreading the Facts As You Might Expect Them to Be Spread

Luckily I didn't have to write a refutation.  William Davis, a man with real operating experience, went right through the accusations and refuted them all, at the American Nuclear Society (ANS) Nuclear Cafe blog, in his post Spent Fuel Pool at Oyster Creek. Among other things, Davis describes the diesel-powered emergency cooling arrangements for the spent fuel pools. A careful and well-referenced post, by someone who didn't forget what he learned in naval reactor school.

Another source of information: the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) issued a press release that is also up on their blog: Nuclear Energy Facilities Prove Resilience During Hurricane Sandy. The NEI blog post has a complete list of plants and how they performed during the hurricane (they did fine). It also links to a more comprehensive report on hurricanes and nuclear plants.

Two excellent posts, with lots of information for laymen and reporters.

Preaching to the Choir

Gundersen made a lot of incorrect statements. ANS and NEI made a lot of correct, well-referenced statements.  However, they can both be accused of the same thing: preaching to the choir.

Who watches Democracy Now and follows Russia Today? Not many nuclear supporters, I suspect.

Who follows the ANS and NEI blogs? Not many nuclear opponents, I suspect.

Okay, so both sides were preaching to the choir.  The hurricane is over, and the power plants did well (as expected). The next question is: how did the mainstream press react to this dis-information and information about nuclear plants and hurricanes?

I think they did very well at separating facts from fiction, but that is another blog post for another day (probably tomorrow).

The Main Stream Press--a teaser

Encouraging you to tune in tomorrow (or maybe the next day) for a post on the mainstream press:

An older post from Margaret Harding on the Optimist's Conundrum: why it is so hard to report good news.

Jim Conca at Forbes: Don't Politicize Sandy: Hurricane Normal Problem for Nukes.


Travelogue for the Universe said...

Thanks for balancing out the emotional reporting soundbits with objective reporting. Have a great weekend. Grateful we dodged the worst of Sandy and sorry for our neighbors to the south. mary

Meredith Angwin said...

Thanks Mary. Our kids live in New York and New Jersey. They live in an area that has power, but it is almost impossible to get around New York and get to work, etc. Even with power, it isn't business as usual. I am keeping in touch with them.

Our son's fiancee is a nurse. The hospital she works at is running on its diesels, without power.

I am also grateful we dodged the worse of Sandy, and I wish everyone had been spared.

Tom Clegg said...

I noticed a big mistake in Gundersen interview. He made a statement about when Irene hit Vermont. He said that when Irene hit Vermont all the canisters(tanks that are used to heat homes or are use for barbeques) floated down the river and got stuck at the dam. He said the police closed down roads for fear that there might be a Hydrogen explosion! Those tanks contain Propane. No tanks that heat homes or cook food contain hydrogen! I know it is only a small mistake but you would think an engineer would know better. Maybe Hydrogen sounds scarier.