Hurricane Sandy is about to ruin a bunch of people’s Mondays. In New York City alone, the storm has already shut down public transportation, forced tens of thousands to relocate to higher ground, and compelled even more office jockeys to work from home. (Okay, that last part might not be so bad, especially for the folks that don’t actually have to work at all.) But if it knocks out power to any of the 26 nuclear power plants that lie directly in its path, the frankenstorm of the century will ruin Tuesday, too. Heck, a nuclear meltdown would probably screw up the entire week.
The plant that is perhaps most directly in harm’s way is the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey. Lying near the coast about half way in between New York and Atlantic City, Oyster Creek is most certainly in the danger zone. New Jersey’s three other nuclear reactors—Hope Creek, Salem I and Salem II—are a bit further south and more inland, and they might have it a little easier. If Sandy gets out of hand though, any of these or the 22 other plants are in a precarious position.
The biggest concern is keeping the cores cool if the reactors go offline. Nuclear power plants, as the name would suggest, produce all the power they need to keep their water flowing over the hot reactor core, but should the storm force the plant to shut down, they have to switch to auxiliary power in the form of emergency generators to keep those water pumps pumping. If something takes out the generators and the neighboring plants have also been shut down (an extreme longshot, sure), Oyster Creek or any of its peers are in big trouble. With no power to pump in cool water, the only option is to let the pools heat up, but in about two days, the heat levels become critical, and the next step is not idea: a nuclear meltdown.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is sending teams of inspectors to all of the plants along the Eastern Seaboard as a precautionary measure. These guys will be able to make sure all safeguards are in place, and if the weather gets raucous enough, they can call for the reactors to be shut down. As luck would have it, Oyster Creek is already offline for refueling which sounds safer than the plant being online, splitting atoms and such, but the opposite is true. Fresh fuel means hotter water which runs the risk of causing the water to splash out of the tanks.
There’s even a precedent to point to in the form of the Fukushima disaster. Oyster Creek and Fukushima actually share the same design, and Fukushima’s reactor number 4 was offline due to maintenance when the catastrophic 2010 earthquake hit. In part due to excessive damage and partly to do with its having more fuel rods than the other reactors, Fukushima 4 became the most volatile and dangerous aspect of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight following Fukushima, and a sustained power outage only made up a part of the problems at Fukushima, so it’s exceedingly unlikely that a similar disaster would occur at Oyster Creek.
Try not to worry too much about New Jersey becoming the next Chernobyl. There are a lot of ifs between now and nuclear meltdown, and even if everything goes wrong, we have a couple of days to set it straight. And worse come to worst, it’s just New Jersey, amirite?
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