Nuclear plant on alert as Superstorm Sandy threatens cooling system of spent uranium fuel rods

Concern: Floodwaters could submerge the pump that is used to cool the water in the spent uranium pool(Oct 30, 2012) A New Jersey nuclear plant is on alert as flood waters from Hurricane Sandy threatens the cooling of its spent uranium fuel rods.Exelon said that a further rise in water levels could force operators at its New Jersey Oyster Creek nuclear power plant to use emergency water supplies from a fire hose to cool the spent rods.The alert – the second lowest of four Nuclear Regulatory Commission action levels – came after water levels at the plant rose by more than 6.5 feet, potentially affecting the pumps that circulate water through the plant from Barnegat Bay, an NRC spokesman said. Those pumps are not essential since the plant is shut for planned refueling at the moment. However a further rise to 7 feet could submerge the service water pump motor that is used to cool the water in the spent fuel pool.If cooling ceased, the pool would take 25 hours to reach boiling point.The spokesman said the company could use water from a fire hose to cool the pool if necessary.

The used uranium rods in the pool could cause the water to boil without additional coolant: in an extreme scenario the rods could overheat, risking the eventual release of radiation. The NRC said in a statement that it expected water levels would begin to abate within the next several hours.Sandy made landfall last night as the most powerful Atlantic storm to hit the United States, bringing a storm surge of more than 13 feet.There have been about a dozen instances of alert-level nuclear incidents in the past four years, according to NRC press releases.An alert-level incident means there is a ‘potential substantial degradation in the level of safety’ at a reactor. The concerns over the status of the spent fuel pool at Oyster Creek were reminiscent of the fears that followed the Fukushima disaster in Japan last year, when helicopters and fire hoses were enlisted to ensure the pools remained filled with fresh, cool water.The nuclear industry has said that the spent fuel rods at Fukushima were never exposed to the air.Oyster Creek is a single unit boiling water reactor that began operation in 1969. It was the first large scale commercial nuclear power plant in the US and is scheduled to be retired at the end of 2019.
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