Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The Union of Concerned Scientists has questioned whether two plants, in North Carolina and Virginia, are ready for a megastorm.
Two nuclear plants in Hurricane Florence’s path are vulnerable to hurricane-force winds and flooding, according to the watchdog group the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). As Florence approaches the North Carolina coast Thursday, the Brunswick plant near Wilmington, North Carolina, and the Surry plant near Williamsburg, Virginia, might be unprepared for the up-to-13-foot storm surges and heavy flooding expected.
Dave Lochbaum, the nuclear safety project director at UCS, said that it’s hard to tell just how vulnerable these plants are because the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not publicly released the required flood-protection preparedness reports it required following the Fukushima disaster of 2011. That’s when an earthquake-induced tsunami caused three reactor-core meltdowns and a hydrogen explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant in Japan, forcing thousands of people to evacuate.
“We do know that both Brunswick and Surry have had potentially serious problems that we hope they fixed,” Lochbaum said in a UCS press release.
UCS points to the fact that in 2012, Duke Energy, Brunswick’s owner, reported to the NRC that there were hundreds of missing or degraded flood barriers at the plant. The company’s follow-up report from 2015 is not publicly available, so there isn’t a way to confirm that the barriers are ready for Florence. In addition, a 2017 NRC summary assessing that follow-up report stated that some plant buildings were designed for a 3.6-foot storm surge—lower than the projections for Florence. As for Surry, a 2015 document from plant owner Dominion stated that heavy rainfall could cause flooding that overwhelms the plant’s protection barriers.
It’s not uncommon for some reports about nuclear facilities to be kept under wraps for national-security reasons, but it does make it difficult for members of the public to check on progress toward preparing nuclear plants for weather events like Florence. And America’s track record with industrial pollution shows there’s reason to want more information about the status of repairs.
When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston in 2017, residents complained of “unbearable” chemical smells. It turned out that many of the petrochemical plants in the state had simply not been prepared to withstand the hurricane, and more than 40 plants had released dangerous pollutants, affecting low-income Latino communities that lived nearby. Nuclear plants, too, have a history: Although fatal accidents are rare, the environmental risks associated with nuclear power production and waste have often fallen disproportionately on communities of color—particularly native populations and the poor.
Experts say that in a worst-case scenario, in the event of a serious accident at either plant, fast-moving winds and storm surge could carry radioactive fumes or other types of dangerous effluent very far, very quickly, exposing people within a 50-mile radius to radiation and potentially making soil dangerous for crops.
Who will be affected if things go south once Florence makes landfall? With Florence, proximity to the power plant matters because you’re at risk for higher exposure to radiation the closer you are, Lochbaum explained. “You’re going to be exposed to more radiation as the wind carries it by,” he said. “The further out you get, that wind tends to get more and more diffuse, so the hazard level for people on the ground as that cloud passes by becomes less and less.”
“The radioactive fumes will be moving fast. If the wind takes it 10 miles per hour—how far will it travel, can you imagine?” said Dean Kyne, a sociologist who studies the impact of nuclear disasters at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Adding to that, Florence is likely to bring strong storm surges. Kyne said, “The risk is double because of the water medium. … The storm surge might also carry radioactive effluent—we can’t estimate how far it will go.”
So let’s look at the Brunswick plant in North Carolina, 30 miles south of Wilmington. Kyne conducted a demographic analysis in 2014 and found that the 50-mile radius around the plant includes 402,395 people, 79 percent of whom are white, 15 percent black, almost 5 percent Hispanic, nearly 1 percent Asian, and nearly 1 percent Native American. Below are CityLab’s race and income maps of demographics around this plant as of today.
The area around Surry, Virginia is more populous and more diverse. In Kyne’s analysis, the population within a 50-mile radius comes to 1.7 million. Around 59 percent are white, 34 percent black, 5 percent Hispanic, and 3 percent Asian. Here are our maps of this area:
In response to questions about preparedness, Richard Zuercher of Dominion Energy, the company that runs the plant in Surry County, told CityLab via email that management had taken steps to make sure that the plant would operate “reliably and safely” during the storm. He added that, generally, “nuclear stations are designed to withstand hurricanes and other natural events such as earthquakes.” According to Surry County’s emergency-services coordinator Ray Phelps, the county held preparation meetings with community members to explain the risks in case the disaster triggers a nuclear emergency.
The plant in Wilmington, run by Duke Energy, is the same design and age as the Fukushima power plant, the News & Observer reports, and it identified potential issues in 2012. Karen Williams, a spokesperson for the company, told CityLab: “We are fully prepared for Florence and have no concerns about flooding at this point.”
While scientists like Lochbaum are most concerned about these two nuclear plants, there are several others in Florence’s path. In the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, it became clear that as the world urbanizes and populations grow, the threats of breaches from nuclear plants affect more people than ever before. In 2011, an analysis found that the population living within 10-mile emergency planning zones near plants had increased by 17 percent in the previous decade. More recent estimates show that a third of Americans live within 50 miles of a nuclear reactor.