Friday, February 15, 2013


Hurricane Sandy is not over by any means.  Not for all the folks who lost their homes in one swoop of a wave; and not for tax payers who’ll have to bail out most  homeowners with US govt. guaranteed flood insurance.  And it’s not over for the US’s 104 aging nuclear reactors designed to be decommissioned after their 40-year lifespan. Twenty-three of those reactors are the same model as those that failed at Fukushima on March 11, 2011; and one of them, Exelon’s Oyster Creek, located in Forked River, New Jersey, is 43 years old. It could have become the next Fukushima.

The pincer movement of two weather fronts colliding made Sandy the biggest mega-storm to strike the US as a result of climate collapse. It raised a storm surge that flooded Staten Island, Lower Manhattan, and the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.  And it raised the water level at Oyster Creek to just below 6.5 feet, the level where the water intake structure that pumps water to cool the plant would have been affected.  And then, the water kept kept rising. 

A bulletin issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission dated Oct. 20 states that “Oyster Creek was shut down for refueling and maintenance outage prior to the storm and the reactor remains out of service,” implying that the plant status posed no danger. But it fails to say that, shut down or no, a surge over 7 feet could have submerged the service water pump motor that is used to cool the water in the spent fuel pool. In that case, it would have had to rely on an internal fire suppression system to keep all those spent fuel rods from overheating and exploding and there was no power source to run it.

Following the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, the US Nuclear Regulatory
Commission conducted an investigation, and issued a document outlining its “Lessons Learned.” One was that the explosions of March 12, 14 and 15  were caused by failure of the external power source on which all reactors depend.  Most of the recommendations of that document have yet to be put into place. Oyster Creek's fire suppression system depends on external power availability.  And be cause of the storm that power was unavailable.  The proof:  the plant's warning sirens failed.  Had there been a serious accident, there would have been no way to alert any of the people living within the plant’s 10 mile evacuation zone.

The matter of evacuation zones is of more than passing interest, especially when hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are impacted. At the time of the nuclear explosions and radioactive fires at Fukushima Daiichi, a US government advisory warned US citizens in Japan to evacuate beyond a 50-mile radius. It is troubling to note that in the US however, no one is permitted to evacuate beyond a ten-mile zone.

At Oyster Creek the water continued rising.  It rose a full 7.5 feet before subsiding, but the fuel pools did not overheat, perhaps because as a precaution Exelon had moved a portable pump to the intake structure. And the power driving those pumps held fast because those plumps were fueled by diesel.

Does it seem that we came within 6 inches of another Fukushima?  Should boiling water be that dangerous?  Will the US wait for the next extreme weather event and try to ride out that storm with its fleet of 104 aging reactors, 23 of them the twins of those that failed at Fukushima?

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