Hurricane Florence Heads for Duke Energy’s Nuclear Reactors

(Bloomberg) -- Hurricane Florence is now headed straight for Duke Energy Corp.’s Brunswick nuclear plant on North Carolina’s southern coast. Company officials say they’re ready; industry foes aren’t so sure.

Brunswick’s two reactors, located near the town of Southport, were built to withstand Category 5 winds exceeding 156 miles (251 kilometers) per hour, according to Karen Williams, a Duke spokeswoman. They sit 20 feet above sea level and four miles inland, she said, suggesting they’re resistant to even the 13-foot ocean surge forecast for Florence.

The plan, she said, is to shut the 1,870-megawatt plant two hours before tropical storm-force winds reach the facility, which could happen as early as Thursday morning, according to the National Hurricane Center. Meanwhile, the company is providing extra personnel to monitor the plant.

Overall, there are at least nine nuclear facilities within Florence’s projected impact area.

“Brunswick is closest to the eye, but every reactor exposed to hurricane-force winds will be shut down,” said Joey Ledford, a spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “We’ve got inspectors at every plant.”

Hurricane Florence Heads for Duke Energy’s Nuclear Reactors

Still, the boiling water reactors used at Brunswick are similar to ones that melted down at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011, according to Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists. They have "a particular vulnerability to flooding," he said.

Federal regulators added measures to prevent a similar accident in the U.S., including re-evaluating flood risk. But if Florence “truly is significantly greater than anything experienced at these plants, it may exceed even their re-evaluated hazard,” Lyman said.

For now, both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the utility say the storm is unlikely to cause problems for nuclear plants.

“We will rapidly assess any impact to a nuclear power plant post storm," FEMA associate administrator Jeff Byard told reporters during a briefing Wednesday.

Another nuclear facility in Florence’s path is the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River Site, which is about 25 miles southeast of Augusta, Georgia, and for decades produced materials for nuclear weapons. A spokesman for the agency said the facility was built to withstand extreme natural events -- including hurricanes and floods.

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