to meeting their winter demand records, and some facilities – non-nuclear facilities – got knocked out by the cold. In fact, nuclear energy became the primary provider of electricity in New England, as natural gas choked up. Actually, the total impact, while good for nuclear, wasn’t all it could be:
The decrease in natural gas electricity generation forced regional grid administrator ISO New England to call on costlier and dirtier coal and oil plants to make up the difference.
Oil? That’s awful. Let’s be thankful this event didn’t go on for a week or more. At least, ISO used this as a teaching moment on the value of energy diversity:
ISO had warned the region about the increasing dependence on natural gas as both electricity generator and home heating fuel. As the weather continued to be cold Tuesday, the demand for natural gas in home heating spiked, leaving less fuel for the power plants.
But nuclear energy plants? Well, this past weekend the fleet was working at about 97 percent capacity and Tuesday, the height of the “polar vortex” – about 95 percent capacity. And no reactor went off line because of the cold. Wholesale electricity prices spiked, but that’s due to demand, not one energy source or another – your capitalist system at work.
So, nuclear energy facilities do not find extreme cold all that intimidating from an operational standpoint. Plants might power down with a hurricane bearing down – or something like superstorm Sandy -at least when the winds are highest – but cold? Not so much.
But there is still diligence – in fact, diligence is the key. The NRC blog goes into this a bit:
The NRC’s regional offices in the Midwest and Northeast are keeping an eye on plant owners’ responses to the unusually low temperatures. Plants in the affected areas have entered off-normal procedures that entail minimizing regular surveillance activities and increasing the frequency of checks and walkdowns (visual evaluations) of equipment that could be impacted by the temperatures.
I spent some time in Quebec in the winter, so it’s all a question of what you’re used to – Montreal is built so you barely have to go outside, ever. Nuclear plants in cold climates – Canada, Russia, etc. – are not unknown. Industrial plants in general are indoor operations. What’s unusual to us is not that unusual really.
The NRC has long recognized the need for nuclear plant owners to be on guard for extreme cold-related issues. Along those lines, the agency in January 1998 issued an Information Notice on “Nuclear Power Plant Cold Weather Problems and Protective Measures.” Although such notices do not require a specific action or written response, they do serve to make plant owners aware of possible concerns.
Which doesn’t mean that what the operators and NRC do to mitigate any harm the cold could do isn’t needed and welcome. So, all right, cold weather really isn’t a ho-hum topic – and the nuclear fleet did, um, weather it with flying if frigid colors. The vortex, in all its frosty fury, will recede pretty quickly – DC is forecast to be in the 60s this weekend. It’s legacy will be recalled by a generation that will tell its grandchildren that this is what it was like in the teens, so toughen up already.
Note (1/15/12): Some of our commenters have questioned whether we might have made more of the nuclear performance than was warranted. What I wrote above was true when I wrote it and still seems on-target. I’ve read stories since that say reactors may have been idled by blown transformers or external plant problems. I asked ace NEI statistician David Bradish about this to see if we could better pin down the issue. This is what he wrote:
As of right now, the extreme cold isn’t known to have caused any nuclear plants to shut down during the polar vortex. Fort Calhoun shut down January 9 after the “vortex” passed due to ice damage to one of its six sluice gates which is on the waterway. Beaver Valley 1 shut down January 6 because of a fault in the transformer. FE [FirstEnergy, Beaver Valley’s operator] has not determined whether the subzero temperatures were the cause of the transformer failure yet: http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2014/01/firstenergys_beaver_valley_nuk_1.html
So let’s leave it there for now.