After Japan, U.S. Nuclear Plant Survives Catastrophic Weather


When a powerful storm system swept across the South earlier this week, a series of tornadoes wiped entire communities from the map and cut power to about 300,000 businesses and homes in parts of Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and other states in the region. At least 200 lives were lost. But what the storm didn't manage to do is harm Browns Ferry, the second-biggest nuclear power plant in the United States.

After a 9.0-magnitude earthquake crippled the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in northern Japan last month, a group of vocal critics called for an end to nuclear power around the globe. (Some, of course, are long-time critics who used this as an opportunity to revitalize their call to action.) One of the most high-profile critics, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called for the aging Indian Point, just outside of New York City, to be shut down. An "emergency demonstration" was organized by activists in the New York area. "Indian Point is a disaster waiting to happen," the activists argued in a press release announcing a march. "We are NOW demanding that Indian Point be shut down for the simple reason that nuclear power is inherently unsafe and until Indian Point is shut down, and replaced by renewable sources of energy, we shall not rest!"

Maybe the activists have been overreacting.

The disaster at Fukushima -- and, before that, disasters at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, among others -- have shown that nuclear power plants, at their worst, can be devastating. But they provide a sizable chunk of our energy needs. At they're best, they're pretty safe. They can light our homes and power our laptops and cellphones without posing a serious risk to the communities that house them and the individuals that operate them.

While a smart discussion about the pros and cons of nuclear power plants is never a bad idea (it's necessary, even), the ability of Browns Ferry to withstand several tornadoes and a powerful storm should calm the aggressive arguments being tossed from either side of the fence. The plant, located on the Tennessee River near Decatur and Athens, Alabama, has similar specifications to Fukushima Dai-ichi and, in the face of catastrophic weather, shut down without a problem.

"Diesel engines, the second line of defense in a long line of safety precautions at the Brown's Ferry plant, were not disabled by the severe weather. The reactors kicked in and provided emergency power to the plant after its main power lines were cut," GreenBeat pointed out. Fukushima's backup power generators were also activated when the 9.0-magnitude earthquake wiped out the primary powerlines to the Japanese plant. The reactors could have avoided partial meltdown had a massive tsunami that followed the earthquake not destroyed those generators, thereby killing the only means of cooling the core.

"The situation at the Browns Ferry plant illustrates the effectiveness of standard nuclear safety features in severe weather," GreenBeat continued. "Most nuclear reactors will never face the tragic consequences of circumstances that struck Fukushima."

Browns Ferry will likely be down for a few weeks. Once the power is back up-and-running, though, the plant is scheduled to continue operating for more than two decades, with licenses for the trio of reactors not set to expire until the mid-2030s.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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