Friday, February 08, 2013

Nuclear Facilities and “Whatever Wicked Weather Comes Their Way”

Little_nemo_bigThe storm bearing down on the northeast – not Washington, D.C. this time, for a change – has sent our friends at the Weather Channel into a tizzy. When I visit the channel on TV, it’s usually quite placid and useful for sleepy time.
Not lately: a tone of impending doom hovers over the reports and the channel has even named the storm Nemo. I don’t know if this is the fish or Winsor McCay’s dreamy little boy, but since the latter is one of the finest comic strips ever done, I pick that Nemo.
I like that an NRC public affairs officer has decided to address the preparation undertaken by nuclear energy plants in the path of the storm – it sort of forestalls the more sensational approach sometimes taken by newspapers.

NRC inspectors stationed at all operating plants on a full-time basis will likewise be busy, as they independently verify the facilities – particularly the Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts and the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire — are positioned for whatever wicked weather comes their way. To help guide those evaluations, the inspectors will follow a procedure and checklist focused on adverse weather protection.
It’s not snow itself that might cause a plant to go offline, but wind and water.
Once the storm arrives, plant operators have plans that guide their responses. For instance, if sustained wind speeds exceed a certain level, a plant would have to shut down. Also, if flooding were to be greater than pre-determined thresholds, an emergency declaration would have to be made and a shutdown may be necessary.
Also, of course, the grid into which the facility supplies electricity may be damaged – as happened during Hurricane Sandy – and make a shutdown prudent even if not strictly necessary.
Neil Sheehan, a public affairs officer from NRC's Region I,  does a good job explaining all this and it’s welcome.
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But you know what? The panicked stories about nuclear energy plants have almost completely vanished. I saw some during Sandy, but really nothing in conjunction with this storm. There may be a couple of nuclear-plant-survives-Nemo type stories afterward, but I’d be surprised. If the storm as big as the Weather Channel predicts, people will have other things to worry about – including a quick restoration of electricity – from their local nuclear energy plant, if that’s where it comes from - if it is lost.
In that vein, here’s some perfectly obvious – and useful - advice from New York Newsday.
Newsday has the right spirit altogether. In addition to sensible lists of items to stock:
Grab your sled, skis, snowshoes or snowman-making kit and head outdoors. A garbage can lid or tray will always work in a pinch ... or just stick to making snow angels and pelting one another with snowballs. When the roads are cleared, head to one of six nearby ski destinations.
I’d add this. Some college friends made this mistake and landed in the hospital:
Never use your gas oven, range or outdoor barbecue to heat your home. They weren’t designed for that purpose. Using them as a source of heat can cause dangerous levels of carbon monoxide to build up in your home.
That’s from SCE&G. And here’s a lot of practical storm advice from Con Edison.
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From oldtimers talking about the flood of 1947 to snowpocalypse a couple of years ago, weather events mark high points – or at least important reference points - in many people’s lives. My Georgia hometown was once caught in an ice storm and froze solid for five days – no electricity – we heard the transformers and wires crashing from the weight of the ice, as well as tree branches and entire trees, all very eerie at night  – it was impossible to move around – too slippery - and it was very cold, especially for Georgia. Days were spent reading comic books wrapped in blankets – nights huddled together in the living room, taking advantage of each other’s personal heat generators under big quilts.
A nightmare? Funnest week of my life, probably – but that’s because we were safe. So – stay safe.
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Oh, and just to cross all the t’s, don’t think the idea of naming storms isn’t controversial. It is – The Weather Channel sees a commercial advantage in doing so – they’ll name storms based on public interest not potential intensity; that can leave a sour taste in some mouths, and it has.
NOAA or AMS might have been better candidates for naming storms with some rigor, but if they were so inclined, they haven’t shown it. There wouldn’t seem any harm in The Weather Channel taking the initiative unless it started charging others for using them – copyrighting them, in other words – or only did so for storms that hit areas with lots of cable-ready televisions. It could get crass really fast. Look here for more on the controversy.

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