* Exelon declares alert at NJ Oyster Creek reactor
* Water levels at Oyster Creek declining
* Exelon says no threat to public health or safety
By Scott DiSavino
NEW YORK, Oct 30 Hurricane Sandy slowed or shut
a half-dozen U.S. nuclear power plants, while the nation's
oldest facility declared a rare "alert" after the record storm
surge pushed flood waters high enough to endanger a key cooling
Exelon Corp's 43-year-old Oyster Creek plant in New
Jersey remains on "alert" status, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) said early Tuesday. It is only the third time
this year that the second-lowest of four emergency action levels
"Oyster Creek is still in an alert but may be getting out of
it as long as water levels continue to drop," NRC spokesman Neil
Sheehan told Reuters.
The alert came after water levels at the plant rose more
than 6.5 feet (2 meters) above normal, potentially affecting the
"water intake structure" that pumps cooling water through the
Those pumps are not essential to keep the reactor cool since
the plant has been shut for planned refuelling since Oct. 22.
Exelon however was concerned that if the water rose over 7 feet
it could submerge the service water pump motor that is used to
cool the water in the spent fuel pool, potentially forcing it to
use emergency water supplies from the in-house fire suppression
system to keep the rods from overheating.
Exelon also moved a portable pump to the intake structure as
a precaution in case it was needed to pump cooling water.
The water levels reached a peak of 7.4 feet -- apparently
above the threshold -- but the pump motors did not flood,
Sheehan said. As of 11 a.m. EDT Tuesday the water level was down
to 5.8 feet, with the next high tide at 11:45 a.m.
"They need the water level to stay below 6 feet for a while
to exit the alert," Sheehan said, noting when the water level
falls below 4.5 feet, the plant could exit the unusual event.
An unusual event is the lowest of the NRC's emergency action
Exelon said in a statement that there was no danger to
equipment and no threat to public health or safety.
"Right now there's no imminent threat of releases. There's
no protective actions around the plant," Federal Emergency
Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said on the Today
"Some of these reporting requirements are due though to the
severity of the storms. That they have to make these
notifications based upon conditions, that does not mean that
they are in an imminent threat at the plant," Fugate said.
The incident at Oyster Creek, which is about 60 miles (95
km) east of Philadelphia on the New Jersey Coast, came as Sandy
made landfall as the largest Atlantic storm ever, bringing up
to 90 mile per hour (mph) winds and 13-foot storm surges in the
biggest test of the industry's emergency preparedness since the
Fukushima disaster in Japan a year and a half ago.
Despite the alert -- which is a serious but not catastrophic
event that signals a "potential substantial degradation in the
level of safety" -- the U.S. nuclear industry was broadly seen
having passed the test. About a dozen alerts have been issued in
the past four years, according to NRC press releases.
On Tuesday morning, the NRC said that Entergy Corp's
Indian Point 3 automatically tripped offline at about 10:41 p.m.
last night due to fluctuations in the power grid caused by the
storm, while Public Service Enterprise Group Inc shut
Unit 1 at Salem in New Jersey at 1:10 a.m. due to a loss of
"condenser circulators" due to the storm surge and debris.
The relatively small 636-megawatt (MW) Oyster Creek plant
earlier experienced a "power disruption" at its switch yard,
causing two backup diesel generators to kick in and maintain a
stable source of power, Exelon said.
The NRC spokesman said the company could use water from a
fire suppression system or a portable pump to cool the pool if
necessary. The used uranium rods in the pool could cause the
water to boil in about 25 hours without additional coolant; in
an extreme scenario the rods could overheat, risking the
eventual release of radiation.
The concerns over the status of the spent fuel pool at
Oyster Creek was reminiscent of the fears that followed the
Fukushima disaster 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.
Nuclear plants must store the spent uranium fuel rods for at
least five years in order to cool them sufficiently before they
can be moved to dry cask storage containers.
Exelon spokesman David Tillman said Monday night the plant
has "multiple and redundant" sources of cooling for the spent
The plant uses pumps to take in external water that
circulates through a heat exchanger used to cool the internal
water that surrounds the rods, keeping them from overheating.
Among other units, Constellation Energy Nuclear Group's
630-MW Nine Mile Point 1 nuclear power reactor in upstate New
York did shut due to a problem putting power onto the grid,
although it was not clear whether the trouble was related to the
In addition, Sandy caused power reductions at both units at
Exelon's Limerick nuclear plant in Pennsylvania and one unit at
Dominion's Millstone plant in Connecticut.