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NEW YORK: Hurricane Sandy slowed or shut a half-dozen US nuclear power plants, while the nation’s oldest facility declared a rare “alert” after the record storm surge pushed flood waters high enough to endanger a key cooling system.
Exelon Corp’s 43-year-old Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey remains on “alert” status, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said early yesterday. It is only the third time this year that the second-lowest of four emergency action levels was triggered.
“Oyster Creek is still in an alert but may be getting out of it as long as water levels continue to drop,” NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said.
The alert came after water levels at the plant rose more than two metres above normal, potentially affecting the “water intake structure” that pumps cooling water through the plant.
Those pumps are not essential to keep the reactor cool since the plant has been shut for planned refuelling since October 22. Exelon however was concerned that if the water rose over 7 feet it could submerge the service water pump motor that is used to cool the water in the spent fuel pool, potentially forcing it to use emergency water supplies from the in-house fire suppression system to keep the rods from overheating.
Exelon also moved a portable pump to the intake structure as a precaution in case it was needed to pump cooling water.
The water levels reached a peak of 7.4 feet — apparently above the threshold — but the pump motors did not flood, Sheehan said. As of 11am EDT yesterday the water level was down to 5.8 feet, with the next high tide at 11.45am.
“They need the water level to stay below 6 feet for a while to exit the alert,” Sheehan said, noting when the water level falls below 4.5 feet, the plant could exit the unusual event. An unusual event is the lowest of the NRC’s emergency action levels.
Exelon said in a statement that there was no danger to equipment and no threat to public health or safety.
“Right now there’s no imminent threat of releases. There’s no protective actions around the plant,” Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said on the Today Show.
“Some of these reporting requirements are due though to the severity of the storms. That they have to make these notifications based upon conditions, that does not mean that they are in an imminent threat at the plant,” Fugate said.
The incident at Oyster Creek, which is about 95km east of Philadelphia on the New Jersey Coast, came as Sandy made landfall as the largest Atlantic storm ever, bringing up to 90 miles per hour winds and 13-foot storm surges in the biggest test of the industry’s emergency preparedness since the Fukushima.