Starting early tomorrow morning (3/26), coastal Massachusetts will be thumped by a late season coastal storm. While most of the precipitation will remain offshore, the storm event is still expected to produce a variety of hazardous weather conditions, including snow, high winds, and coastal flooding. A blizzard watch is in effect for the Cape and Islands region. In Plymouth, there is a high wind warning most of the day tomorrow and winter weather and coastal flood advisories for the early part of the day.
According to the National Weather Service’s Hourly Weather Forecast Graph (as of 5:00 pm on 3/25), Plymouth is expected to get 4-5 inches of snow by tomorrow afternoon (the bulk of it arriving between 5:00 am and noon). Sustained winds throughout the day are expected to reach speeds of 26-34 mph, with gusts ranging from 43-60 mph. Early in the storm the winds are predicted to blow from the northeast, then as the day progresses, the winds are expected to shift from the north and finally from the northwest by 2:00 pm. Check out the Hourly Weather Forecast Graph for more details.
As with any strong coastal storm that hits the Plymouth shoreline, we have many concerns related to the Pilgrim Nuclear plant due to the storm tomorrow. This is especially true because high tides are occurring at the same time. According to NOAA, high tides are occurring at 7:55 am (10.59 feet) and again at 8:32 pm (9.84 feet). Note that these tide are lower than those that occurred during the storm “Hercules” on Jan 2-3, 2014 – the two tides that occurred during Hercules were just over 12 feet; however, our concerns remain.
In addition to the snow, and high winds and tides, there is also the potential for a 2-3 foot storm surge. This would bring the total high tide to approximately 13 feet. There will also be waves 15-25 feet just offshore, meaning the total velocity zone could be even higher – potentially 17-18 feet!
Pilgrim relies on offsite power (via underground cables) to operate pumps that cool the reactor and spent fuel pool. If the pumps fail, either due to extended power loss or flooding, water in the spent fuel pool could boil and evaporate, exposing the highly radioactive fuel rods to air, and leading to fire and explosions. There are reportedly backup generators at Pilgrim (with approximately seven days’ worth of diesel fuel stored onsite); however this system has not been proven fail-safe. This is the same system that failed at Fukushima and has put Japan and the Pacific Ocean in jeopardy. The tsunami that impacted the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant flooded its backup generators, causing failures and cutting power to the pumps – overheating and meltdowns ultimately occurred.
In addition to cooling system concerns, there is a high-level nuclear waste storage facility (dry casks) being constructed about 300 feet from the shore of Cape Cod Bay. This facility needs to be closely monitored in relation to sea level fluctuations, flooding, and storm surges. The dry casks are being placed in the coastal zone below a safe elevation (about 24’feet above mean sea level) – impacts from flooding, storm surges, and corrosive salt air and water are serious concerns. Read more about Entergy’s waste storage project here.
Same concerns go for the facility’s low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) storage area, where many barrels of LLRW is stored. The LLRW storage area is located only about 30 feet from the coastal bank. Based on a recent discussion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), they wouldn’t know if a barrel of LLRW was swept into Cape Cod Bay during a storm unless the owners of Pilgrim were aware of it themselves and reported it to the NRC.
The impacts to Pilgrim from storms concern us now, but the risks will only increase as seal levels rise along the eastern seaboard and the intensity of storms increase due to climate change. Sea levels are expected to rise 2.5-6 feet by the end of the century, meaning flooding and storm surges – particularly during hazardous storms – will only get worse.