Photograph by Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images

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The Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in Forked River, New Jersey, was already shut down for refueling before Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast. Government inspectors were dispatched here and to eight other nuclear plants to ensure they weather the storm without incident.

Photograph by Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images

U.S. Nuclear Plants Brace for Hurricane Sandy Impact

As Hurricane Sandy approaches the East Coast, preparations are under way to safeguard Oyster Creek Generating Station, the oldest U.S. nuclear plant.

The oldest nuclear power plant in the United States, Oyster Creek Generating Station, is girding for the full force of Hurricane Sandy's expected landfall in Southern New Jersey this evening.

Oyster Creek, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) north of Atlantic City, generates 630 megawatts (MW), or enough electricity to power 600,000 households. Situated about a mile inland from the brackish inlet of the Atlantic Ocean known as Barnegat Bay, it shares the same design as Japan's tsunami-crippled coastal nuclear plant, Fukushima Daiichi. But industry officials and regulators argued today that Oyster Creek and two dozen other nuclear plants in the path of the unprecedented storm were prepared to withstand the worst. Oyster Creek declared an alert Monday night, citing "water exceeding certain high water level criteria in the plant’s water intake structure," according to a release from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC said it expected water levels to begin to abate Monday night. (Related blog: "Utilities Ready for Power Outages as Hurricane Sandy Barrels Ashore")

Preparations began at Oyster Creek "as soon as we learned the storm had even the smallest potential of crossing our path," said Suzanne D'Ambrosio, spokeswoman for Exelon, the plant operator. The plant, in fact, is not generating power; it was shut down last week for refueling, a process that takes place once every two years. Nevertheless, she said about 300 workers are sequestered at the plant to shepherd it through the storm, even as many of the surrounding areas were evacuated, including Long Beach Island, the barrier island that separates the bay from the Atlantic.

"We are prepared to protect our plant, our workers and the public no matter what this storm throws at us," said Oyster Creek Site Vice President Michael Massaro, in a statement.

Federal Inspectors Dispatched

The NRC, which keeps two resident inspectors at each of the 104 atomic power plants in the United States, dispatched additional inspectors with satellite communications systems to Oyster Creek and eight other power plants that lie in the forecast path of the storm in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, and Connecticut. According to the NRC, all of the plants have flood protection above the predicted storm surge. The agency said key components and systems are housed in watertight buildings capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds and flooding.

Diesel generators will be prepared to run a minimum of seven days to run the cooling systems that manage decay heat in the nuclear fuel at all the potentially affected plants, said Tom Kauffman, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. industry's main trade group. It was the failure of this crucial backup cooling that triggered the nuclear fuel damage and explosions at the Fukushima power plant in Japan after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Because of radiation contamination, more than 70,000 people who lived within a 12.4-mile (20-kilometer) radius have not been allowed to return to their homes. (Related: "One Year After Fukushima, Japan Faces Shortages of Energy, Trust" and "Japan Reactor Crisis: Satellite Pictures Reveal Damage")

The U.S. industry has made numerous safety improvements since the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island. Together, they make nuclear power "a whole different ballgame" than in Japan, Kauffman maintained. Oyster Creek, like Japan's Fukushima plant, is a General Electric boiling-water reactor with Mark 1 containment system. But unlike Fukushima, Oyster Creek and all U.S. plants with this design have so-called "hardened" vent systems designed to prevent the dangerous buildup of pressure inside the containment dome in case of an accident. After Fukushima, in response to doubts raised about these systems, the U.S. industry pledged to implement improvements to ensure the vents were accessible and reliable. (Related Quiz: "What Do You Know About Nuclear Power?")

"We work on the premise we have to expect the unexpected," Kauffman said.

"Nothing New"

When winds greater than 75 miles per hour are expected, U.S. nuclear power plants are required to shut down. This is not for fear that the winds will damage the plant, but because of the likelihood that the surrounding electrical grid will fail, forcing it to rely on backup diesel generators to power its cooling systems. Oyster Creek shut down for this reason in August 2011 when Hurricane Irene whipped the Atlantic coast.

"This is nothing new—these plants have been through it all before, tornadoes, high winds, flooding conditions," Kaufmann said.

In the wake of Fukushima, the U.S. nuclear industry has pledged to bring additional backup equipment such as generators, pumps, hoses, and batteries to keep plants operating in case of loss of power or water, but that deployment is still under way. Some critics have raised concerns about the safety of spent fuel at Oyster Creek and other nuclear plants, noting that the cooling pools where it is stored are not required to have backup power. Spent fuel rods are still radioactive and continue to generate significant heat for decades. Without cooling, the pools would boil away, leaving the fuel vulnerable to damage and to causing a radioactive release. Exelon says, however, it has "numerous, redundant backup cooling" for its spent fuel ponds. (Related: "Photos: Rare Look Inside Fukushima Daiichi")

Local environmental groups have long sought the closure of the Oyster Creek plant, which began operation in 1969. Their focus has not been on the risk of a hurricane, however, but on the impact that the reactor has on the Forked River, from which it draws cooling water, and on Oyster Creek and Barnegat Bay, into which it discharges hot water. After many years of battle over the issue, the nuclear plant is now slated to be retired at the end of 2019, 10 years before its license expires, in a deal reached two years ago with New Jersey environmental regulators. The deal allows Exelon to continue operating the plant until then without building expensive cooling towers that would help reduce the environmental impact of its water discharges. (Related: "Pictures—Ten Oldest U.S. Nuclear Plants: Post-Japan Risks")

Other power plants where additional U.S. inspectors have been dispatched during the hurricane are Calvert Cliffs in Maryland; Salem and Hope Creek in New Jersey; Peach Bottom, Susquehanna, and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania; Indian Point in New York; and Millstone in Connecticut.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include Exelon's response regarding cooling for its spent fuel ponds and the NRC's alert update about water levels at Oyster Creek.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.