At U.S. Nuclear Sites, Preparing for the Unlikely





American nuclear safety regulators, using a complex mathematical technique, determined that the simultaneous failure of both emergency shutdown systems that are designed to prevent a core meltdown was so unlikely that it would happen once every 17,000 years.

But 20 years ago, it happened twice in four days at a pair of nuclear reactors in southern New Jersey....

In the wake of the disaster in Japan, concerns were quickly raised at the Turkey Point nuclear power plant in Florida, on Biscayne Bay 24 miles south of Miami. Critics pointed to the potential for a hurricane to create a storm surge that could simultaneously sever grid power and inundate backup generators — precisely the recipe that crippled Fukushima.

In 1992, Turkey Point took a direct hit from Hurricane Andrew, causing a loss of off-site power for more than five days. Backup systems, however, allowed operators to keep the reactors cool until power could be restored. Paul Gunter, the director of the Reactor Oversight Project for the group Beyond Nuclear, which opposes nuclear energy, joined other critics in pointing to the Dresden nuclear facility in Morris, Ill., and the nearby Quad Cities plant in Cordova, both of which are north of the New Madrid seismic zone. The area registered quakes estimated to have exceeded 7.0 in magnitude in 1811 and 1812, and is known for somewhat more regular temblors of lesser intensity....

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