US plants unscathed by Hurricane Matthew

14 October 2016

Preparations by plant operators, rigorous design and operating procedures and a coordinated industry and government response ensured that nuclear power plants in the south-eastern USA were undamaged by the first major hurricane to hit continental USA in 11 years.

Hurricane Matthew tracked from space as it approaches the USA over 6-8 October (Image: NASA Earth Observatory)

After leaving hundreds dead in Haiti and wreaking major damage in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and the Bahamas. Hurricane Matthew grazed Florida and Georgia before making landfall south-east of McClellanville, South Carolina, on 8 October. Strong winds, falling trees, and storm surge flooding knocked out power in coastal areas of all three states.

As the hurricane moved towards the USA, preparations were put in place at nuclear power plants along the storm's path. On 4 October, Florida Power and Light's (FPL) St. Lucie plant, not far from the predicted landfall, declared an unusual event - the lowest of NRC’s emergency classifications - in response to hurricane warnings. Plant staff began severe weather procedures, such as removing or securing equipment or debris that could be affected by wind or water. They also conducted walk downs of important plant systems and ensured emergency supplies were adequate.

Similar measures were taken at FPL's Turkey Point plant and at Duke Energy's Brunswick and Shearon Harris plants in North Carolina and HB Robinson in South Carolina. Storm preparations for nuclear fuel facilities were also put in place at Global Nuclear Fuel - Americas' fabrication plant near Wilmington, North Carolina.

On 6 October the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) dispatched additional inspectors to St Lucie, Turkey Point and Brunswick and activated its regional incident response centre in Atlanta, Georgia in preparation for the storm.

Matthew's landfall brought down power lines and flooded transformers, leaving more than two million customers without power across several states. The Robinson plant responded to a temporary loss of off-site power by shutting down safely. The Harris plant also experienced a loss of off-site power, but was already shut down for a scheduled refuelling outage. Emergency diesel generators at both plants operated as designed, and off-site power was restored within 24 hours.

According to the US Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), all plants had exited their unusual event status by 9 October, although grid stability issues meant that Brunswick was required to operate at reduced power. The plant is now ramping back to full power.

"All the nuclear power plants affected by Hurricane Matthew weathered the storm well and were well-prepared for the high winds and heavy rains," Joe Pollock, NEI's vice president of nuclear operations, said. "These facilities have proven their ability to withstand hurricanes and provide electricity to homes and businesses as soon as off-site power is restored and the electricity grid can accommodate the power," he added.

The NEI noted that organizations and entities including utility chief executive officers and plant communicators, NEI, the NRC, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, the Electric Subsector Coordinating Council, federal and state emergency responders, and the Department of Energy remained in contact with one another to ensure that all parties were apprised of the plants' status and efforts to restore power to consumers and were aligned on daily communications.

It has been 11 years since a major hurricane - Hurricane Wilma - made landfall in the USA. Sandy, which caused widespread disruption on the country's Eastern seaboard in October 2012, was one of the biggest storms ever to hit the eastern USA but officially dropped just below hurricane status before making landfall.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News