North Carolina Nuclear Power Plant Shuts Down Ahead of Florence; It's One of 9 in the Path of the Storm

Pam Wright
Published: September 14, 2018

A North Carolina nuclear power plant has shut down ahead of Hurricane Florence. 

There are 12 nuclear plants in the Carolinas, nine of which are in the storm's potential path, including Duke Energy's Brunswick nuclear power plant, a 1,870-megawatt facility located about 30 miles south of Wilmington on North Carolina's southern coast.

Brunswick officials announced Thursday the plant was shutting down, per federal law. 

Anytime winds are expected to exceed 73 mph, which is equivalent to just shy of a Category 1 hurricane, nuclear plants are required to shut down two hours before the winds arrive.

While nuclear plants are built to withstand hurricane-force winds, they are required to shut down as a protective measure in case off-site power is lost, S&P Global reports.

“Brunswick is closest to the eye, but every reactor exposed to hurricane-force winds will be shut down,” said Joey Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We’ve got inspectors at every plant.”The plant has the capacity to power more than 1.8 million homes and relies on the same 1970s General Electric nuclear technologies that powered the Fukushima plant — a Japanese duel-reactor plant that suffered extensive damage and a radiation leak following a 2011 magnitude 9.0 earthquake and tsunami.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, all U.S. nuclear power plants, including Brunswick, were required to upgrade facilities to withstand earthquakes and flooding.

“The good news is, because of Fukushima, the plant is better prepared,” Dave Lochbaum, director of the nuclear safety project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Charlotte Observer. “If it hadn’t been for Fukushima, that vulnerability would not have been identified.”

(MORE: Hurricane Florence Could Knock Out Power to Up to 3 Million Carolina Customers)

Duke spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Green told Reuters the plants installed more safety equipment in the wake of the disaster, including pumps and generators that are needed to cool the reactor core and keep radioactive fuel rods from overheating. 

According to a 2004 National Regulatory Commission report, facilities at the Brunswick plant, located on Cape Fear River, are equipped to handle a storm surge of 22 feet above sea level and maximum sustained winds over 200 miles per hour, the Observer notes. 

On Friday, the National Advanced Hydrologic Advanced Prediction Service predicted flood levels on Cape Fear near the nuclear plant will reach 24.5 feet on Tuesday, a foot above the previous record of 23.5 feet. 

Dr. Michael Ventrice, a meteorological scientist for the Weather Company, an IBM Business, told weather.com the river has reached flood levels during several other hurricanes, including Category 3 Hurricane Diana in 1984 and Category 3 Hurricane Fran in 1996, but is "not like what we're going to see with Florence."

"Florence track is coming more from the east, which allows the storm to push more water towards the coast," Ventrice said. "Also, Florence has a large wind field, which imposes more surface wind stress on the ocean, creating a greater impact on storm surge."

Duke Energy's Brunswick duel-reactor nuclear power plant, located about 30 miles south of Wilmingtion.
(Courtesy Duke Energy)
Both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Duke Energy say the storm is unlikely to cause any issues at nuclear plants.

“They have everything they need to operate the plant safely,” Galen Smith, Brunswick’s on-site resident inspector with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told the Observer. “It’s just a matter of executing at this point. Even if the storm is bad, they should do fine.”

Smith noted that the reactors at Brunswick are virtually impenetrable, with concrete and rebar walls several feet thick. 

Pre-storm preparations at the plants include checking on backup diesel generators to ensure they have enough fuel, conducting site inspections and securing loose equipment that could become dangerous projectiles in the wind.

(MORE: Hurricane Florence Could Knock Out Power, Vital Infrastructure for Weeks, FEMA Warns)

After the storm passes, inspectors will ensure the plant is safe before bringing it back online.

“We will rapidly assess any impact to a nuclear power plant post-storm," FEMA associate administrator Jeff Byard told reporters Wednesday.

Florence will not be the first storm to impact the Brunswick plant. Hurricanes Fran in 1996 and Dianna in 1984, both Category 3 storms, passed close to the plant. Hugo, a Category 4 Hurricane, made landfall about 150 miles southwest of Brunswick in 1989.

While the National Hurricane Center continues to tweak the forecast as the storm approaches, Florence is expected to move slowly through the Carolinas and Southeast through this weekend, bringing catastrophic inland rainfall flooding, life-threatening storm surge and destructive winds.


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