Sandy Slashes Power to Millions, Nuclear Plants in Stable Condition (Updated)

On Tuesday morning, half a day after Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, the enormous storm, now being called a superstorm or a post-tropical cyclone, was still causing destruction far inland while as many as 6 million electric customers from Maine to North Carolina and west to Pennsylvania and West Virginia were without power.

Outages Abound

Utilities up and down the East Coast had made use of the advance warning about the storm to bring in restoration crews from other parts of the U.S. as well as Canada and to deploy people and equipment in areas where they were expected to be needed once the worst of the storm passed. Several utilities noted that crews could not begin restoring power until winds subsided. Around 7 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, New Jersey–based PSE&G tweeted that it was beginning to dispatch crews, but that “unprecedented flooding” would “impair some restoration for days. Please be patient” it advised customers.

Though estimates of the number of customers without power continue to change as the storm moves slowly west, bringing wind, rain, and snow, outages clearly are widespread and may last several days in some locales. And although BGE may have had fewer outages in Maryland than it experienced with previous storms, both PSE&G and New York–based Con Edison said Sandy had caused the biggest storm-related outages in their histories. PSE&G tweeted on Tuesday that damage from Sandy was “twice as bad as Hurricane Irene,”which hit the region almost exactly a year ago.

As of 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, Ohio-based FirstEnergy said in a press release that it had more than 1.6 million customers without power in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia. However, it warned that its preliminary outage numbers could climb as the storm continues to move inland.

Nuclear Unit Shutdowns and Events

Concern about coastal nuclear power plants escalated Monday night as citizens and industry professionals alike couldn’t help but look at images of the 13-foot storm surge and think of the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

One of the two units at Indian Point, 45 miles north of New York City, was automatically tripped offline on Monday because of grid power fluctuations. Entergy Corp., the plant’s operator, said the plant was not at risk, despite Hudson River water levels of more than 9 feet (presumably “above sea level,” although confirming that benchmark has been difficult).

Unit 1 at New Jersey’s Salem Nuclear Generating Station was manually shut down early on Tuesday because four of its six circulating water pumps were no longer available due to Hurricane Sandy’s impacts. According to operator PSEG Nuclear, “The circulating water pumps use Delaware Bay/River water to condense steam on the non-nuclear side of the plant.” The neighboring Hope Creek plant remained at full power, while Salem Unit 2 has been offline since October 14 for a scheduled refueling outage.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported that Exelon Corp. declared an “alert” at its Oyster Creek nuclear plant in New Jersey due to the storm surge of 6.5 feet above normal. The surge could potentially affect the intake structure for the circulating water pumps at the country’s oldest operating nuclear plant. The plant was shut down for refueling a week ago. However, Reuters noted that although the shutdown means those pumps are not essential, “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, potentially forcing it to use emergency water supplies from the in-house fire suppression system to keep the rods from overheating.” In fact, water levels did reach a peak of 7.4 feet, according to a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) spokesman, but were at 6.5 feet at 6:10 EDT Tuesday. Reuters said that “the company had moved a portable pump to the water intake structure as a precaution, but has not needed to use it.”

Oyster Creek also 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. Another Exelon reactor at the Limerick facility in Pennsylvania dropped to 91% capacity after Sandy “caused a problem with the condenser,” according to Reuters.

Constellation Energy Nuclear Group’s Nine Mile Point 1 reactor in upstate New York shut down, according to Reuters, due to a problem putting power onto the grid, although it was not clear whether the trouble was related to the storm, an NRC spokesman was quoted as saying. Bloomberg Businessweek reported on Tuesday morning that the automatic shutdown was the result of “power disruption to a switchyard.”

Dominion Resources reduced output to 75% at Unit 3 of its Millstone nuclear plant in Connecticut on Monday as a precaution in anticipation of high intake water levels. Unit 2 was offline for a planned refueling. Entergy’s Vermont Yankee plant also reduced power, to 88%, at the request of system operator ISO New England, to help maintain grid stability.

The NRC said it continues to monitor 11 nuclear facilities in the storm’s path.

Substation and Grid Troubles

Several substations also were out of service as a result of the storm. PSE&G, for example, noted that “The walls of water created by the storm surge flooded a large number of substations along the Passaic, Raritan and Hudson rivers, disrupting service for about 462,000 customers in Hudson, Essex and Middlesex counties. The magnitude of the flooding in contiguous areas is unprecedented. PSE&G had to take these stations out of service and will have to wait for the flood waters to recede before we can assess the damage, dry out the equipment, replace equipment when necessary and re-energize the system to restore service. It will be a slow, painstaking process.”

On Monday night, @POWERmagazine retweeted a link to an amateur video of an explosion at a Con Edison transformer station. At the time, Con Edison spokesman Bob McGee was simply calling it an explosion at a power plant in lower Manhattan. There were no reports of injuries as a result of the event.

PJM reported
that as of 5 a.m. Tuesday morning, more than 4 million of its customers were without power and 41 transmission lines or substations were out of service due to the storm. PJM noted that New Jersey was the hardest hit area. “For example, there are about 22 230-kilovolt transmission lines out of service in New Jersey, many because of flooding in substations in the northern part of the state.”

The grid operator (which serves all or parts of Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia) added that, “Overall, the high-voltage transmission system is in good shape. There is enough generation available in the region to cover the loss of those generating stations that are out of service because of the storm. PJM had scheduled additional generating units to be available to run to replace generation forced to shut down because of the storm.”

One Powerful Storm, Many Powerful Effects

Whatever the storm is called, at whatever stage, it continues to inflict substantial damage not only along the East Coast but also far inland. The storm, which created unprecedented flooding in New York and New Jersey in particular, is also large. Wind warnings were issued as far south as Florida, north to Canada, and west to Illinois and Wisconsin and the Great Lakes. Snow has created havoc not only in West Virginia, where it was anticipated, but also in North Carolina.

Update on Sandy’s Power Impacts, Wednesday, Nov. 31

As of 9 a.m. EDT, the Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery reported that there were 6,249,397 customers without power in 16 affected states. New Jersey had the highest percentage of customers without power (51%) and New York the second highest (21%). States with fewer than 1,000 outages were not included in the DOE’s count.

The DOE situation report also noted that Vermont Yankee nuclear plant was brought back to full power on Wednesday after being reduced to 89% on Tuesday at the request of the grid operator due to the loss of a transmission line in New Hampshire.

When power will be restored is still an open question in many areas, and estimates vary, depending on the particular utilities serving each state, though some customers in most of the heavily affected states are being warned to prepare for lengthy outages that could stretch into the weekend or later.

According to the DOE report, Delmarva Power announced on Tuesday that customers in some shore areas of Maryland may not be back online until Friday. As of 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Baltimore Gas & Electric said that more than 62% of its customers who had lost power had had service restored, but outages were expected to last for multiple days due to the magnitude of the storm. As far west as Michigan, according to Detroit Edison, it may be several days before all storm-related outages have been handled.

Meanwhile, the slow-moving storm could still cause additional outages north to Canada and into the Midwest.

A State of Emergency has been declared for Connecticut, Delaware, Washington D.C., Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Google has launched an interactive map site with emergency information related to Sandy that includes power outage information.

Sources: Reuters, Bloomberg Businessweek, CNN, MSNBC, PSE&G, PSEG Nuclear, FirstEnergy, BGE, Con Edison, CBS News, WV Metro News, Baltimore Sun, PJM, NRC, DOE

—Gail Reitenbach, PhD, Managing Editor (@POWERmagazine)

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