When hurricanes approach, experts tell people to stock up on drinking water and on food that doesn’t require refrigeration, top off their car gas tanks and batten down the hatches. Nuclear reactors also make preparations, with a more formal procedure. With Hurricane Matthew approaching Florida's coast, those procedures are already well advanced.
Plant operators make sure their fuel tanks are topped off too. In this case, it’s diesel fuel, for the emergency generators that would start up and provide electricity for on-site needs if the high-voltage grid went down. The diesels are tested at regular intervals, in foul weather or fair, to assure a reliable back-up supply of electricity.
Plant workers secure anything that could blow away.
The plants are prepared to house and feed a full complement of workers, who would stay at the sites if the roads became impassable.
If the winds are anticipated to reach hurricane force, typically 70 to 75 miles per hour, operators will shut the reactors down, two hours in advance. They may also shut down if exceptionally high tides or other water levels are expected.
And the plants are in constant contact with the a round-the-clock operations center at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. If landlines and cell phones are knocked out, they have satellite phones. In addition, NRC inspectors will be present in case of severe weather.
The plants themselves are designed with hurricanes in mind, as well as tornadoes, earthquakes and other potential threats. All the safety-related equipment is set up to withstand the worst that nature can throw at it.
In addition, each site has a building filled with portable generators and pumps, couplings and hoses, designed to allow a flexible response to unexpected problems. Similar equipment is stored at emergency response centers in Phoenix and Memphis, each near an airport, for quick delivery anywhere in the country if needed.
In the course of a hurricane, some plants will use the official government classification system to declare “unusual events” or “alerts,” and will notify local and federal officials that they have done so. The procedure provides a structure for alerting relevant officials to unexpected events at a plant, but in this case the activities are responses to very obvious external developments.
Shutting down a generating station, whether nuclear or fossil, does not create shortages of power on the grid, because so much of the distribution system is lost in a hurricane anyway, as falling trees tear down power lines and utility poles.
The preparations at nuclear plants are part of the larger effort by electric companies in affected regions. The utilities have a highly-developed system of mutual assistance, in which they loan each other crews and equipment for post-storm clean-up. Exactly who will loan and who will borrow is ad-hoc, depending on the path of the storm, but the crews are on standby, ready to roll.
Historically, nuclear plants returning to service after catastrophic hurricanes have provided energy essential for recovery efforts.
MONDAY UPDATE: Matthew clobbered roofs, roads and utility poles. But, as expected, nuclear power plants in the region performed as they were designed and came through the storm ready to resume production of electricity, which is a vital component of regional recovery. Some plants ran all the way through the storm, and others are awaiting the OK to re-start, which they will do as soon as Federal officials have checked that the areas surrounding the plants, the roads are passable and the emergency sirens are still in place.
Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas saw a lot of damage to infrastructure, but the nuclear infrastructure was designed and built with weather more severe than Matthew in mind. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, U.S. plants have protected public health and safety through numerous weather challenges. They operate reliably year round. The U.S. nuclear infrastructure provides the strong backbone to get areas that are damaged by such storms back on their feet and focused on recovery.
Throughout the region, the need to generate electricity was sharply reduced because so many power lines were knocked down by wind or falling trees.
Matthew killed more than a dozen people in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas, and caused yet-uncounted billions of dollars in damage, to private property and public buildings and infrastructure. Recovery will be difficult but electricity from the regions’ nuclear reactors will help lay the groundwork for that.