At a Nuclear Plant, Hurricane Brings More Worry

From New York Times

By Michael Powell

Some years ago, Janet Tauro moved to the pine barrens and salt-flecked flats of the Jersey Shore, where she would raise her children. Then she found that Oyster Creek, the nation’s oldest nuclear plant, sat on her doorstep.

She became a nuclear activist, one of dozens who bird-dog the Oyster Creek plant, and helped persuade Gov. Chris Christie to shutter the place by 2019. But not even the closing notice set her mind at ease.

Then Hurricane Sandy blew through, spinning houses off foundations, blowing holes in barrier islands and wrecking lives. In the midst of this mayhem, Oyster Creek sounded a modest alarm.

Rising waters in Barnegat Bay threatened to submerge the pumps the plant uses to pull in water to cool its reactor and spent-fuel pools. Had workers with Exelon Corporation, which owns Oyster Creek, been forced to turn off the water-intake pumps, they might have had to dip fire hoses into the floodwaters to refill the ever-hot pool. The plant issued an alert, the second lowest on the four-stage scale established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

At the same time, 39 of 42 warning sirens, which are perched on poles for miles around the plant and intended to warn local residents in event of a nuclear emergency, lost power.

Ms. Tauro pulled her coat tight against winter winds as she walked along a bridge within sight of the plant’s smokestack; this area, she noted, was underwater on Oct. 29. “We know what the company will say: this is another ‘lesson learned,’ ” she said. “But we’ve got 3.5 million people in a 50-mile radius of this plant, and it feels like we’re sitting ducks.”

In fact, Craig Nesbit, a spokesman for Exelon, said, “Everything went very well.” And Gordon K. Hunegs, of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, pointedly added, “The plant was always safe.”

“What if” disaster tales are a risky business; our world is filled with unrealized perils. This is particularly true of nuclear power, as it inflames our imagination and stirs primal fears.

Still, the N.R.C.’s conclusion feels too tidy. Oyster Creek is a sometimes troubled nuclear plant.

And there is the impression, built up year after empirical year, that the N.R.C. is a tiger denuded of claws. Even the agency’s internal monitors found it was notoriously cautious about actions that might cost plants time and money.

In 2007, Exelon Corporation ignored corrosion in pipes used to circulate cooling waters in an Illinois plant. A pipe broke. Had the pipe ruptured during an emergency, experts told The New York Times in 2011, there might have been a catastrophe 100 miles west of Chicago.

The N.R.C. handed out two low-level reprimands, akin to sending the company to its room without dinner.

A couple of years later, Gregory B. Jaczko, a rare activist at the agency, argued that poor management of erosion in the drywall shell of the reactor at Oyster Creek merited closer attention. “The company’s series of errors,” he wrote, “provides evidence that directly contradicts Exelon’s ability to meet the commitments.”

The majority of the commissioners ignored him.

Then there are those broken sirens. Exelon and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission say not to worry; there was a back-up system. That involved sending out local deputy sheriffs in patrol cars with loudspeakers.

Wouldn’t 85 mile-per-hour winds and washed-out roads prove problematic?

“The state has said it could have carried out that plan,” an agency spokeswoman replied.

Another agency official interjected that the best move during a radiological release was to stay indoors. So mission accomplished, sort of.

Let’s acknowledge that nuclear power is complicated. Its carbon footprint is minimal. A few prominent environmentalists argue that the rapidly heating world cannot make wrenching changes without nuclear power to ease the transition. Mr. Nesbit of Exelon argues, reasonably, that Oyster Creek had backup for the back-up plans. There were generators, and fire engines on trailers. But experience teaches that problems can become a stumble down a staircase.

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