Harvey made landfall in Texas this week and the flooding was historic. Shaping up to be the most costly natural disaster in American history, the storm has left refineries shut down, interrupted wind and solar generation, caused a constant worry about gas explosions amid gas futures hitting a two-year high, and caused a chain of events that led to chemical plant fires that may be the beginnings of a much larger explosion at the Arkema chemical plant.
Over a fifth of the country’s oil production has been shuttered. Gasoline prices have risen also to a two-year high.
But the Texas nuclear power plants have been running smoothly.
The two nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project plant near Houston were operating at full capacity despite wind gusts that peaked at 130 mph as the hurricane made landfall. The plant implemented its severe weather protocols as planned and completed hurricane preparations ahead of Hurricane Harvey striking the Texas Gulf Coast on August 25th, after Harvey was upgraded to a Category 4 hurricane.
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No one who knows anything about nuclear was surprised. Nuclear is the only energy source immune to all extreme weather events — by design.
The nuclear plant has steel-reinforced concrete containment with four-foot thick walls. The buildings housing the two reactors, vital equipment and used fuel have steel-reinforced concrete walls, four to seven feet thick, which are built to withstand hurricanes and tornadoes. The plant is located 10 miles inland and at an elevation of 29 feet above sea level. The facility is designed with watertight buildings and doors, with all buildings housing safety-related equipment being flood-proof to an elevation of at least 41 feet.
“We’ve got significant rain,, but flooding has not been an issue here,” plant spokesman Buddy Eller said in a phone call about the reactors.
That the nuclear plant is just fine seemed to irk anti-nuclear groups who don’t want to see nuclear ever performing well, even if it helps the storm-wracked people of south Texas when other power sources are failing.
Three watchdog groups — the Sustainable Energy & Economic Development coalition (SEED), the South Texas Association for Responsible Energy and Beyond Nuclear — recklessly urged politicians, owners and regulators to shut down the plant because of Harvey, even if it hurt residents, emergency workers and hospitals who desperately need power. The reactors provide 2,700 MW of power to 2,000,000 customers in the area.
But the regulators and the state would have none of that nonsense.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff are at the plant, assessing the situation and safety aspects of the plant. “The South Texas Project reactors have been operating safely throughout Harvey and continue to do so,” NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said. The reactors can be shut down quickly if something develops, but that’s not expected to be necessary.
Two-hundred fifty storm crew workers, along with regulators, were running the plant and are set up with sleeping arrangements, food and water to weather the storm no mater how long it took.
According to the online news source North American Wind Power, one large installation in the path of the storm sent all 39 workers home as the hurricane closed in, but operated remotely until the wind hit 55 mph. It then shut down automatically like all farms when wind speeds exceed their design limits. Most wind farms have not sustained much damage, but getting them back to capacity will be difficult.
The NRC also said Harvey does not pose a threat to the Waterford Nuclear Power Plant in New Orleans or the River Bend Plant near Baton Rouge.
We’ve seen this before. Last summer, a heat wave cooked America with extreme temperatures, affecting most energy production as well as causing fires and water shortages, sucking electricity like crazy to power the cooling necessary to avoid discomfort and even death. According to the National Weather Service, 122 million Americans were under heat alerts.
Fortunately, nuclear power didn’t mind, scoring record capacity factors of 96 percent and up, with no increase in price. Other energy sources did not fare so well, and some gas plants gouged consumers just because they could.
In 2014, a polar vortex shut down natural gas and coal plants and stopped wind turbines and solar generation. But nuclear performed wonderfully and provided more power to the hard-hit Northeast than any other source.
Whether it’s hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, heat waves or polar vortexes, nuclear performs better than anything else. There’s no better reason to retain our nuclear fleet, and even expand it, to give us a diverse energy mix that can handle anything Mother Nature can send against us.
Jim Conca is a longtime resident and scientist in the Tri-Cities, a trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation, and a science contributor to Forbes at forbes.com/sites/jamesconca.