Photograph by Michael Candelori, NurPhoto via Getty Images
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A highway is left deserted in Johnston County, North Carolina as residents take shelter from the approach of Hurricane Florence.

Photograph by Michael Candelori, NurPhoto via Getty Images

Nuclear Power Plant Still Threatened by Florence Rainfall

Since Fukushima, plant operators have shored up defenses. Will it be enough in the Carolinas?


Predicted path

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Hurricane Florence is in the midst of dumping hazardous amounts of rain across North and South Carolina. As it stalls over the region before heading west, some regions could see as much as 20 to 40 inches of water. And some experts worry that the area's nuclear power plants may be at risk.

Already, North Carolina Emergency Management has reported more than 600,000 are without power, and six nuclear power plants owned by Duke Energy are bracing for impact. At a press conference attended by CNN, a representative from FEMA said the power plants were not yet a concern for the agency.

Those watching the storm are anxious to know if the flooding could cause a disaster comparable to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.


Atlantic Ocean

In March 2011, a large 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck Japan, resulting in a massive tsunami that damaged emergency pumps meant to cool the Fukushima plant's reactors. A major meltdown and subsequent explosions resulted. More than 150,000 residents had to be evacuated and many still fear possible health risks from the leaked radiation.

Could an environmental disaster like Fukushima happen in the Carolinas?

Withstanding the Storm?

Lee Cox from the radiation protection section of North Carolina's Department of Health and Human Services says the Brunswick power plant four miles inland from the state's coast was shut down when winds exceeded 70 mph, a cautionary procedure.

“We are not concerned because we realize they are designed to withstand a storm much greater than Florence,” says Cox.

He says plants like those in North Carolina should be able to withstand wind speeds of up to 200 mph and have safeguards like flood barriers, back-up generators, and emergency pumps ready should flood waters impact operations.

During a telephone news conference with reporters, representatives from Duke Energy said that emergency equipment is in place at its Brunswick plant should it be needed, and workers are on site to ensure it works properly.

“Because Fukushima happened, it's less likely for this to lead to that outcome,” says Dave Lochbaum, a former nuclear engineer who now directs the nuclear safety project at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental advocacy group.

After the Fukushima disaster, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered nuclear plants to review their flooding safety plans. Most nuclear power plants in the U.S. today were built in the 1970s and 1980s, when estimates for possible floods were much lower, says Lochbaum.

The post-Fukushima revision required plants to reevaluate their flood risks and ensure their flood barriers were in effective, working condition.

Preparing for Floods?

Lochbaum says the Brunswick plant reported missing flood barriers to the NRC in 2012. A follow-up report was sent to the NRC in 2015, which was not made publicly available. A press release from the UCS notes that the NRC's 2015 assessment found Duke underestimated flood potential by eight feet.

(Storm surges and floods are the biggest cause of fatalities during hurricanes. Read more.)

Nuclear power plants that have stated they are up to NRC standards haven't been 100 percent foolproof. Lochbaum notes that in 2012, Florida Power & Light's St. Lucie plant was hit by a freak storm that penetrated improperly sealed flood barriers and flooded the plant's cooling pumps. Had the plant's reactor failed, he adds, the plant could have become hazardous.

Cox maintains that Duke has since updated facilities to meet NRC standards and that the plants are prepared and ready for any emergency.

“It's increased our chances for success, but it doesn't guarantee our success,” adds Lochbaum.