Severe Weather, Nuclear Plants and the NRC

Severe Weather, Nuclear Plants and the NRC

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Severe Weather, Nuclear Plants and the NRC Most of us check the weather forecast each morning to see whether we need a coat or an
umbrella, or in extreme cases — to stay home. While science has made forecasting storms
and weather events more accurate, the weather is still often unpredictable. We can’t always accurately predict the weather,
but nuclear plant operators and the staff here at the NRC have the experience and the
plans to ensure that the nation’s nuclear plants remain safe –even when facing hurricanes,
tornadoes, heavy rain and floods, and ice and snow storms. Some recent weather-related events that affected
nuclear power plants were the Missouri River floods of 2011, Superstorm Sandy in 2012,
Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the March nor’easter of 2018, which brought heavy snow and tropical
storm force winds to the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Nuclear power plants are designed and built
taking into consideration the kinds of severe weather expected in the area where they’re
located. Plants along the coast consider potential
hurricane effects; plants near rivers and other bodies of water evaluate water intrusion
and flooding; plants in areas with more thunderstorm and tornado activity take into account those
events; and plants in colder regions have equipment and plans for dealing with ice,
snow and very cold conditions. Strong structures protect the plant’s important
systems from wind damage, flying debris and other weather-related concerns and some important
equipment is also located higher than areas that may be more flood-prone. The plant’s operators and the NRC inspectors
are constantly aware of what can happen during severe weather and have detailed plans for
what to check before, monitor during and evaluate after storms and other weather events. While there are plans and procedures at nuclear
plants for all types of weather, let’s look more closely at one particular event — a
hurricane. During hurricane season, nuclear plants near
the coast or the Gulf of Mexico as well as the NRC closely monitor all tropical storms
and hurricanes as they develop. If the storm’s projected path shows it moving
towards the U.S., our regional offices begin tracking it, paying special attention to areas
with nuclear plants or other NRC-regulated facilities. As the hurricane’s path becomes more defined
and it looks like it will come ashore, the NRC’s preparations intensify. Resident inspectors at nuclear sites near
the projected storm path begin checking the plant’s preparations, which may include the
plant staff securing items that could be blown by high winds, checking important emergency
equipment such as diesel generators, and ensuring adequate supplies are available on site if
roads and bridges are blocked or damaged. Additional NRC inspectors may also be dispatched
to nuclear plant sites that might be affected. About two days before expected hurricane-force
winds, NRC officials travel to State Emergency Operations Centers to be in position before
the storm hits. Key NRC emergency personnel in the regional
office and headquarters are also placed on call. All the nuclear facilities potentially in
the hurricane’s path provide the NRC continual updates and the on-site inspectors monitor
the plant staff’s actions. Nuclear plants are built to withstand the
expected storms in their area and actual hurricanes have shown that plants can safely shut down
and survive even extremely powerful storms with little or no damage to important safety
equipment. Even so, the NRC establishes communications
with state and federal emergency response agencies, including the Federal Emergency
Management Agency or FEMA, just in case protective actions for local residents are needed. The NRC stays in contact with the plant staff
and NRC inspectors as the storm passes, using either normal communication channels or the
NRC’s backup emergency systems. As a hurricane approaches, the plant’s operators
may shut the plant down based on expected wind speeds. After the storm passes, the NRC helps assess
the damage to the facility and works with other agencies, such as FEMA, to make sure
local emergency response organizations are recovered enough from the hurricane to resume
their normal response capabilities for any event at the nuclear plant. If the plant shut down, it will only be restarted
after the NRC is satisfied that there is no damage to safety equipment and emergency response
resources have been restored. Other severe weather conditions experienced
by nuclear plants may provide less advance warning than a hurricane and the plans and
procedures may not be as extensive, but all the plants, operators do have plans and have
shown in real events that they are ready to respond. NRC inspectors look at the equipment and evaluate
those plans — and the NRC license requirements for control room operators include testing
their response to unexpected conditions, including weather. Fortunately, very few storms and other weather
events directly impact nuclear plants and other NRC-regulated facilities, but a combination
of preparation and experience means the NRC and the nuclear power plants we regulate are
ready — no matter what the weather may bring.

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