Duke starts to shut North Carolina Brunswick nuclear plant ahead of Florence

(Reuters) - Duke Energy Corp DUK.N started to shut the Brunswick nuclear power plant in North Carolina ahead of Hurricane Florence, which is expected to strike the coast near the plant on Friday.

Florence is currently a Category 2 storm with maximum sustained winds of 110 miles per hour (177 kph), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC). On its current track, the storm will hit the coast on Friday with maximum sustained winds of about 105 mph.

Duke spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Green said the company was following its procedures and is shutting Unit 1 now and would start shutting Unit 2 at the 1,870-megawatt plant later today. One megawatt can power about 1,000 U.S. homes.

Nuclear plants have procedures that require they shut a safe amount of time before hurricane force winds of at least 74 mph are expected to reach the site.

Brunswick is located about four miles (6.4 kilometers) from the coast and sits about 20 feet (6.1 meters) above sea level. The storm surge in the area around the plant is expected to reach nine to 13 feet, according to the latest NHC forecast.

The two reactors at the site, which entered service in 1975 and 1977, are of similar design to some of the reactors damaged at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan after an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

Since Fukushima, all U.S. reactors have been upgraded with additional safety equipment, including portable pumps and generators to keep cooling water circulating through the reactor in case the plant loses offsite power.

“We feel well prepared. There are multiple layers of protection at nuclear plants. We’ve got backups for backups,” said Green, noting the plant has been through hurricanes before. The company last shut Brunswick due to hurricane force winds in the 1990s, she said.

There are 16 reactors in North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, the states that will likely suffer the most damage from Florence. Most of those reactors, however, are located well inland from the coast and are not expected to experience hurricane force winds, according to the latest NHC forecast.

Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Susan Thomas