Last night Exelon Corp. declared an “alert” at its New Jersey Oyster Creek nuclear power plant as a result of Hurricane Sandy‘s record-breaking storm surge. The alert is the second-lowest level of the four-tier emergency scale established by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), and the NRC warns that a further water rise could force the country’s oldest working plant to use emergency water supplies to cool its spent uranium fuel rods to prevent the release of radiation.
The alert came after water levels at the plant rose by more than 6.5 feet above normal, jeopardizing the pumps that circulate water through the 43-year-old plant. While the pumps are not crucial because the plant has been out of operation for over a week, and the reactors are relatively cool, a further rise in water could still submerge the service water pump motor that is being used to cool the water in the spent fuel pool.
If ordinary cooling ceased, the pool would take 25 hours to reach the boiling point; this is an extreme scenario where the rods could overheat and eventually release radiation. In this event the plant would probably have to switch to using fire hoses to pump in extra water to make up for the extra heat. However, Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, says that even in this scenario, the 25-hour lead would still provide operators ample time to take corrective steps. Exelon has said in a statement that there is no danger to equipment and no threat to public health or safety and that they expected water levels to abate within the next several hours.
So far at least two other nuclear plants in New Jersey are expected to close as a result of Hurricane Sandy.