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Frankenstorms and the Fukushima Factor: More Than 20 Nuclear Power Plants Are in Sandy's Path

Nuclear reactors are barely mentioned when disaster preparedness agencies begin issuing storm warnings. Here's why this is a big mistake.

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US storm watchers predict Hurricane Sandy could cut power to 10 million Americans for a week to ten days. If outside electricity fails, nuclear reactors must rely on emergency cooling systems to prevent a meltdown. The generators providing this protection typically have no more than a week’s supply of diesel fuel on site—insufficient to ride out a blackout lasting ten days.


The Hidden Risk of Inland Tsunamis


The United States has recently seen how reactors can be threatened by “inland tsunamis” released by extreme storms that cause rivers to overflow. In the US, 64 reactors sit near rivers or reservoirs that are prone to flooding. In the 1990s, flooding on the Missouri River caused the loss of emergency backup systems at Nebraska’s Cooper plant. Similar flooding along the Mississippi damaged emergency systems at the Prairie Island reactor in Minnesota.


In April 2011, the Fort Calhoun reactor, 20 miles north of Omaha, was engulfed by floodwaters as the rain-swollen Missouri overflowed its banks. The flooding was followed by an electrical fire in a critical safety system. Faced with $134 million in added repair costs, the reactor remains closed.


In mid-September, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was rocked by scandal when several NRC engineers revealed agency officials had suppressed a 2011 safety report. NRC engineer Richard Perkins claimed the NRC had “intentionally mischaracterized… safety information” to conceal the risk that “failure of one or more dams upstream from a nuclear plant may result in flood levels at a site that render essential safety systems inoperable.”


Climate-related damage—to roads, bridges, and reactors—is only expected to increase as the planet’s weather grows more unruly. As the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear notes: “When reactors partially power down, or shut down entirely . . . it often happens at a time when reliable electricity supplies are needed most.”


The irony in this, for those who would call for a  “Nuclear Renaissance,” is that it is renewable energy—not nuclear power—that is proving itself to be “more reliable in a global-warming world.”



Gar Smith is Editor Emeritus of  Earth Island Journal , co-founder of Environmentalists Against War and author of  Nuclear Roulette: The Truth about the Most Dangerous Energy Source on Earth  (Chelsea Green).

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