The nightmare of all nightmares

October 30, 2012

The hurricane that is being called a "Frankenstorm" will wreak destruction in the most populated part of the U.S.--but Gary Lapon reports on a further threat from Sandy.

HURRICANE SANDY, which hit land in New Jersey on Monday evening, may be the worst storm to strike the East Coast in recorded history. It has already claimed more than 50 lives in the Caribbean, and it is certain to cause billions of dollars--maybe tens of billions of dollars--in damage in states across the Northeastern U.S.

But the threat of an even greater catastrophe remains--a nuclear nightmare. The effects of the storm could combine to produce the kind of disaster that took place at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan in March 2011--itself the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl 25 years before.

According to a Time magazine report, Sandy--whose impact has been magnified because it collided, as it hit land, with a cold front crossing the Northeast--will cause deadly flooding:

The real danger comes from the potentially huge storm surges the hurricane could cause along coastal areas. [The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] put the storm surge threat from Sandy at 5.7 on [a 6-point scale]--greater than any hurricane observed between 1969 and 2005, including Category 5 storms like Katrina and Andrew. NOAA's National Hurricane Center says that "life-threatening storm surge flooding" is expected along the mid-Atlantic coast.

Oyster Creek nuclear power plant
Oyster Creek nuclear power plant (Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

And to top it off, the storm is hitting at the full moon, when ocean tides are at their highest point--which will make the flooding even worse.

Some 60 million people will feel the impact of the storm before it's over. Already, half a million people have been evacuated from coastal areas where the storm surge could hit 10 feet or more. Preparations for disaster relief by local, state and federal authorities are unprecedented.

But there's no preparing for the nightmare of all nightmares--if the so-called "Frankenstorm" causes a crisis at one of about two dozen nuclear power plants that are vulnerable to damage.

The fact that this scenario looms above the other tragedies caused by Sandy is further evidence--if more was needed--that nuclear power is too dangerous to be tolerated, and has to go.

THE NUCLEAR plants are built to withstand a hurricane, but the greatest danger, according to former nuclear industry executive Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Energy Education, comes from the possibility of a loss of outside power, which is likely to occur up and down the East Coast during the storm.

Gundersen has worked in nuclear energy for 40 years, including as a licensed reactor operator, and has overseen projects at 70 nuclear power plants across the U.S. On the Fairewinds podcast on Sunday, Gundersen pointed out that this is "what happened at Fukushima Daiichi; the offsite power was eliminated."

Even if the plants shut down, according to Gunderson, "what Fukushima taught us is that doesn't stop the decay heat. There is still as much as 5 percent of the power from the power plant that doesn't go away...For that, you need the [backup diesel generators] to keep the plant cool."

Gundersen said that many plants have two or three backup diesel generators, but he says he has encountered situations where one generator failed, meaning that one other generator was all that was available against the possibility of a disastrous meltdown.

Speaking to Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! on Monday, Gundersen warned:

A bunch of these plants are in refueling right now. And when you're in a refueling outage, you are not required to have all your diesels running. You can be tearing apart one and only have one diesel available. So the concern is that, should they lose offsite power, all of this heat needs to be removed, and you're relying on just one diesel to keep the nuclear reactor cool.

He continued:

The biggest problem, as I see it right now, is the Oyster Creek plant, which is on Barnegat Bay in New Jersey. That appears to be right about the center of [where the storm will hit].

Oyster Creek is the same design, but even older than Fukushima Daiichi unit one. It's in a refueling outage. That means that all the nuclear fuel is not in the nuclear reactor, but it's over in the spent-fuel pool. And in that condition, there's no backup power for the spent-fuel pools. So if Oyster Creek were to lose its offsite power--and, frankly, that's really likely--there would be no way cool that nuclear fuel that's in the fuel pool until they get the power re-established.

Gundersen explained that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not require nuclear power plants to be able to cool fuel pools with their backup generators. On the Fairewinds podcast, he explained that this would require much larger generators, which the nuclear plants' for-profit operators don't want to purchase.

In other words--once again--profits come before safety.

If the fuel pools get too hot, Gundersen explained, it's possible for the steel lining of the pool to "unzip"--and for the humidity released by the boiling water to damage the structure of the building housing it, which can lead to the release of radiation. Such releases have lasting impacts. New reports indicate that the Fukushima plant may still be leaking radiation into the ocean, contaminating fish--some 17 months after the disaster.

OYSTER CREEK is the oldest operating nuclear power plant in the U.S. It was built to operate for just 40 years after going online in 1969, but its operating license was recently renewed in spite of protest from area residents and environmentalists.

As longtime anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman wrote about the decaying Oyster Creek plant several years ago:

Perched 50 miles east of Philadelphia and 75 miles south of New York City, Oyster Creek could not be licensed at all by today's standards. Its reactor containment was never required to withstand a jet crash and is far flimsier than the lid that blew off Chernobyl Unit Four in the Ukraine in 1986, releasing massive quantities of radiation into the surrounding countryside. Because Oyster Creek's old core is laden with far more residual radiation, a breach could blanket the densely populated American northeast with an apocalyptic cloud of death and destruction.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) sent inspectors to Oyster Creek and eight other nuclear power plants for "enhanced oversight" during the storm, including Indian Point just north of New York City, and Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the site of an accidental partial meltdown in 1979.

On Monday night, the NRC declared an alert at Oyster Creek "due to water exceeding certain high water level criteria in the plant’s water intake structure.” Although NRC officials emphasized that the alert status was the second-lowest of the NRC's four action levels, it admitted that "Water level is rising in the intake structure due to a combination of a rising tide, wind direction and storm surge."

More than 20 million people live within a 50-mile radius of Indian Point, which sits on the Hudson River just 25 miles north of New York City. The Hudson is expected to feel the effects of the storm surge from Sandy.

Entergy, the Fortune 500 company that operates Indian Point for a profit, claims the plant will be safe despite the dangers posed by the hurricane. But these claims should be taken with a grain of salt--especially after an un-redacted version of an NRC report, leaked to the press, showed evidence that the NRC and power plant operators have "misled the public for years about the severity of the threat" of flooding to U.S. nuclear power plants located near dams.

Indian Point hardly has trustworthy record on safety. Studies have found that "thyroid cancer rates in those four counties around Indian Point are also among the highest in the U.S., with a rate of thyroid cancer that is 66% above the U.S. average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

As of this writing on Monday afternoon, none of the plants in the path of the storm have shut down. Again, this is a case of corporations putting profits before people. As Gundersen pointed out on the Fairewinds podcast, "It would be better if the operators, instead of waiting for the power to fail, shut the power plant down ahead of time." A planned, gradual shutdown places much less stress on the plants' emergency systems than a sudden shutdown.

If the worst did occur at Oyster Creek or another plant, the storm will make evacuation efforts especially difficult. As of Sunday at 7 p.m., New York City subways and buses were shut down, along with Amtrak, Metronorth and New Jersey transit. Major bridges and highways in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were closed, and U.S. Highway 6/202, a main artery in the case of an evacuation related to Indian Point, has been shut down through Wednesday at noon.

And it goes without saying that a nuclear disaster would take place while emergency and disaster response services are already stretched to the maximum dealing with the devastation caused by the hurricane.

The odds are that Hurricane Sandy will pass without causing a meltdown at a nuclear power plant. But the fact that this is even a possibility highlights the insanity of continuing to operate these plants, let alone in close proximity to several of the largest cities in the country.

That all this is happening in the days leading up to an election where both President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney support using public funds to build new nuclear power plants reveals the need for a mass movement for a nuclear-free society.

Chris Williams contributed to this article.

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