What if Hurricane Matthew Hits Florida’s Nuclear Reactors?

This blog was written by Sara Barczak, former Regional Advocacy Director with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Simon Mahan, SACE's former Renewable Energy Manager, contributed to this blog post.

Guest Blog | October 6, 2016 | Energy Policy, Nuclear

Hurricane Matthew has already caused devastation in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean. Tracking this dangerous storm’s path, which Bloomberg reported as a “$15 billion threat,” as it moves towards Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and potentially up the Eastern seaboard is proving difficult. But despite unclear predictions, communities are wisely mobilizing and calling for evacuations (or are already in the process of doing so) and/or declaring states of emergency.

Extreme weather events have widespread ramifications on our electricity systems. A Department of Energy review of responses to Hurricanes Irene and Sandy from nuclear reactors in the Northeast highlighted a number of strategies to protect the reactors. According to the Department of Energy, “Some reactors were shut as a precaution to protect equipment from the storm; others were forced to shut down or reduce power output due to damage to plant facilities or transmission infrastructure serving the plant; and still others were forced to reduce power output due to reduced power demand caused by widespread utility customer outages.”

Hurricane Matthew Storm Surge, Florida (National Hurricane Center)

Two nuclear power plants exist on Florida’s eastern coast: the St. Lucie and Turkey Point facilities. Based on the current National Hurricane Center projections, it appears that Hurricane Matthew will come closest to the St. Lucie nuclear facility early Friday morning. Storm surge near the St. Lucie nuclear reactors may reach 2-5 feet, and with hurricane force winds of 130 miles per hour. Meanwhile, a significant water quality problem in the Southeast is the ongoing pollution at Florida Power and Light’s (FPL) Turkey Point cooling canal system. It’s unclear what effects high winds and storm surge could have on Turkey Point’s open air industrial sewer.

After flooding caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor in Japan, the Miami News Times published an article, “Five reasons Turkey Point could be the next nuclear disaster.” The article noted: “Just like in Japan, Turkey Point is susceptible to a meltdown caused by a natural disaster. A hurricane-spurred tidal surge from Turkey Point’s neighboring Biscayne Bay could create catastrophic conditions identical to those in Japan. With power down, the plant would be forced to rely on emergency diesel generators to pump water to cool the reactors….those generators would ‘certainly’ become inundated with water from the tidal surge, causing them to drown and fail.” (Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and Tropical Audubon with Friends of the Everglades filed a lawsuit this summer to resolve the pollution problem caused by Turkey Point.)

NOAA, Nat’l Digital Forecast Database, Image by Roger Herried

A report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists evaluated the risks of flood surge on associated power plant infrastructure in southern Florida. UCS’s report states, “Although Turkey Point, a large nuclear facility along the coast, is unlikely to be flooded by a Category 3 storm, everything around it is likely to be, and damage to nearby major substations could still prompt widespread outages in the region.” Similar impacts may be expected of other power plants in the path of Hurricane Matthew.

There are additional nuclear plants further along the eastern coast of the U.S. (find an interactive map from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission here) and depending on how this storm tracks, could be impacted. Bloomberg’s article documented twelve power generators in the storms path, including two nuclear plants, and reported that, “Nuclear operators NextEra Energy and Duke Energy Corp. said they would shut their reactors hours ahead of the onset of hurricane-force winds.” A NOAA projection for the wee hours of this Sunday show peak winds (shown in red on the image to the right) coming very close to Duke Energy’s Brunswick nuclear plant near Southport, North Carolina about 40 miles south of Wilmington.

Hopefully nothing in Florida or elsewhere is affected. We hope everyone stays safe. But as we face more and more such challenges, it’s imperative that we become more energy resilient in the face of climate change. Thankfully there are answers – smart energy choices can keep the lights on!

Hurricane Matthew Projection and Cone of Uncertainty, Florida (National Hurricane Center)
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