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OUT OF THIS WORLD | Earth, Space and Everything In-Between - a daily journey through weather, space and science with meteorologist/science writer Scott Sutherland

Nuclear plants in Florence's path prepare to weather storm


Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Wednesday, September 12, 2018, 6:31 PM - As Hurricane Florence churns its way towards the Carolinas, at least 8 nuclear power plants stand in its way. With public dread over a Fukushima-like accident in the U.S., how will these plants weather this storm?

'Storm of a lifetime' Florence is still a few days out from landfall along the U.S. coastline.

Swirling over the Atlantic Ocean, roughly 800 kilometres out to sea as of Wednesday midday, the storm was classified as a Category 4 Hurricane, with maximum sustained wind speeds near 215 km/h, and hurricane force winds (of at least 118 km/h) out to a distance of 110 kilometres from the storm's core.

WATCH BELOW: WATCHING FLORENCE FROM THE ISS



When Florence makes landfall, sometime Friday night or Saturday morning, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center, it appears likely that it will have weakened to a strong category 3 storm, but it is still expected to bring with it a triple threat of blasting winds, torrential rainfall and a potentially devastating storm surge.

Directly in the path of the storm are 8 nuclear power plants, located in North Carolina and South Carolina. Three of these - North Carolina's Brunswick Nuclear Plant, and South Carolina's Robinson and Vogtle Nuclear Stations - are located in areas that will likely see the worst of Florence's impacts.


The locations of nuclear power plants in North and South Carolina. The number of dots at each location indicates the number of reactors housed at that station. Credit: Google/World Nuclear Association/Scott Sutherland

In a statement issued on Wednesday, Sept 12, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said "Duke Energy’s Brunswick nuclear plant south of Wilmington, N.C., could face hurricane-force winds, major storm surges and heavy rain. Other plants near the storm’s projected path are also taking precautions."

The National Hurricane Center, as of Wednesday, is expecting the storm surge from Florence, for the Wilmington area, to reach between 2.5-4.0 metres (9-13 feet).

According to a 2004 NRC report, Brunswick was rated to be waterproof against a storm surge of up to 6.7 metres (22 feet).

(TRACKING FLORENCE: Stay with The Weather Network online and on T.V. for our exclusive coverage of the storm. Stormhunters Jaclyn Whittal and Mark Robinson will be LIVE in the Carolinas with the latest.)

Robinson nuclear station will likely see similar impacts, with rain and wind speeds at Vogtle electric generating plant expected to be slightly less severe, based on the current track of the storm. Stations farther inland will likely escape any storm surge, but will still be dealing with heavy rains, tropical storm force winds, and some flooding due to the saturated ground and enhanced rainfall on the eastern slopes of the Appalachians. 

According to the NRC, there are specific sets of rules nuclear power plant operators must follow leading up to landfall of a hurricane or tropical storm in the vicinity of the plant.

In addition to keeping up to date on the storm conditions (wind speeds, rainfall amounts, storm surge, etc), staff are required to inspect the entire site for equipment that may be moved by the storm's winds, and secure doors and water supply lines. Diesel generators, with at least seven days worth of fuel, must be on hand to take over, should the plant lose power from the local electric grid. As a precaution, the power plant's reactor(s) must be shut down at least two hours before the storm's strongest winds arrive.



In preparing for Hurricane Florence, the NRC statement said that the staffs at Brunswick, Surry in southeastern Virginia, Harris near Raleigh, N.C., Robinson near Hartsville, S.C., and some other plants are working through their severe weather procedures, including ensuring that all loose debris and equipment have been removed or secured, and conducting walk-down inspections of important systems and equipment.

AN AMERICAN FUKUSHIMA?

With a major storm bearing down on these power plants, some thoughts are turning back to 2011, when Japan's Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant was impacted in the wake of the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami.

This, however, is a far different scenario. Flooding, combined with the storm surge, is a major concern for this storm, but the industry has had 7 years to adapt and strengthen their safety measures.

Duke Energy Corp spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Green told Reuters that since the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011, all U.S. nuclear plants have installed more safety equipment, including portable pumps and generators.

A BIGGER CONCERN

While there is little chance of a nuclear accident due to Florence, there is a bigger concern to public health from the storm - toxic waste.

According to CNN, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently monitoring nine different sites for their potential to release toxic chemicals into the environment, should they become compromised by flooding.

• FCX Inc., in Beaufort County, N.C., a former farm supply distribution center, which has been contaminated by pesticides, herbicides and chemicals used to treat tobacco.
• Geiger, near Charleston, S.C., which is now used to storm construction equipment, but at one time processed waste oil and suffered soil contamination as a result.
• Horton Iron and Metal, near Wilmington, N.C., which contains contaminated soil, sediment and groundwater from over 50 years of fertilizer manufacturing.
• Koppers Co. Inc., in Charleston, S.C., has capped underground containment from its days as a lumber and fertilizer facility.
• Macalloy Corp., in Charleston, S.C., was once a smelting operation, and chemicals found on the site have been linked to cancer.
• Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, in Havelock, N.C., is an active Marine Corps installation, which has groundwater, soil, sediment and surface water contamination due to the operations there.
• Parris Island Marine Corps Recruit Depot, in Beaufort County, S.C., contains several potential contamination risks due to past operations, including waste dumping, paint disposal, chemicals used in dry cleaning, and storage of pesticides.
• Triangle Pacific Corp., in Pasquotank County, N.C., contains chemicals used in the manufacturing of wooden cabinets, including methyl ethyl ketone, toluene, acetone, isobutanol, cadmium and arsenic.
• Wamchem Inc., in Beaufort County, S.C., which is still undergoing groundwater contamination treatment, after years of being used for dye production.

In addition to all of this, the spread of pig manure into flood waters is also a concern.

The spread of toxic contaminants has been a concern for previous storms.

Roughly one year ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, at least 13 toxic waste sites were flooded or damaged during the storm, according to CNN.

Sources: Reuters | CNN | CNN | World Nuclear Association | U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

RELATED: HURRICANE FLORENCE: STORM CHASERS FROM NC BEACH - THINGS ARE HAPPENING



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