11/03/2012 10:46 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Are Nuclear Plants Safe in Hurricanes? Incident During Sandy Suggests They May Not Be

We know the bad news about superstorm Sandy: the Jersey shore was devastated and many towns remain waterlogged. New York suffered a direct hit, with the city's mass transit system flooded and part-paralyzed for days to come.

But there is good news, too, and that is all that it failed to do. Sandy did not kill hundreds -- as Hurricane Katrina did in New Orleans in 2005 -- thanks, in part, to timely evacuations and rescue efforts. And luckily, it did not trigger an even greater disaster at one of the region's nuclear power plants. But it could have.

Watchdog groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) warn that America's nuclear facilities remain vulnerable to a variety of potential catastrophic events, both natural and resulting from deliberate sabotage or cyber-attack. And they say that federal regulations are currently inadequate to deal with all of these possible disaster scenarios.

I reported on one such danger, solar flares, last May in the New York Daily News. A 2011 study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory warns that a massive solar storm could knock out electricity in some areas for weeks, overwhelming the capacity of many nuclear plants to keep their critical cooling systems operational.

But nuclear regulators have not required power plants to guard against the risk of solar storms. David Lochbaum, the director of UCS's nuclear safety project told me in an email interview that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licenses plants "using the rearview mirror." It looks to the past, in other words, to assess future risks.

But, he says, past events are not always a good measure for the worst that can happen. Lochbaum cites Fukushima. The Daichi plant was located behind a seawall that was high enough to protect against the kind of flooding that Japan had seen previously. But nobody had considered the possibility that a monster tsunami could breach the wall.

All 13 of the plant's back-up generators broke down an hour after the earthquake when they were swamped by the tsunami. As a result, that critical cooling system failed.

"Is it prudent public policy to operate facilities of such immense hazard on such tenuous assumptions?" Lochbaum asks. He says that Hurricane Sandy provides further proof that we need to come up with solutions "sooner rather than later" to fix America's inadequate regulatory system.

Lochbaum points out in a blog that the risks of nuclear power generation are magnified by the fact that the plants are always located near a river, lake or ocean. That is because producing nuclear power creates a lot of heat, which needs to be dissipated by huge volumes of water. These cooling systems are all that prevents the plutonium in reactor cores from going critical and melting down, much like what happened at Fukushima.

But locating nuclear plants near bodies of water has its risks, which range from the clogging of intake pipes by barnacles and mussels -- as happened at the Pilgrim nuclear plant near Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1981 -- to potential damage from storm surges, such as those created by Hurricane Sandy.

One facility was put in a state of "high alert" during Sandy due to high-water levels in its water intake structure. The Oyster Creek Generating Station on Barnegat Bay -- 40 miles north of Atlantic City, and the oldest nuclear facility in the nation -- was shut down last week for refueling. Plutonium, however, can dangerously overheat whether or not a plant is actively producing electricity. So, 300 employees stayed at Oyster Creek, Monday night, to ensure that the imperiled cooling system continued to function.

Nuclear plants located near oceans are not the only ones threatened by flooding. Thirty-four reactors, fully a third of those in the U.S.9i, are sited along rivers with dams upstream. A report released last March by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests that many of these plants were not designed to withstand the massive floods that catastrophic dam collapse would unleash. The Huffington Post reported earlier this month that:

"According to the NRC's own calculations ... the odds of the dam near the Oconee plant [operated by Duke Energy in South Carolina] failing at some point over the next 22 years are far higher than were the odds of an earthquake-induced tsunami causing a meltdown at the Fukushima plant."

This alarming news, however, was blacked out of the NRC's public report. It was leaked by the lead author, Richard H Perkins, who said that his work had been censored because it revealed that:

"The NRC has been in possession of relevant, notable, and derogatory safety information for an extended period but failed to properly act on it."

In another section of the report, about the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in Nebraska, NRC redactors removed information indicating that the failure of the Oahe or Fort Randall dams could result in levels of rampaging water higher than the plant's flood protection walls. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission evidently believes that it is better to hide the facts about nuclear risks than to fix the problem.

Critics allege that not only does the NRC withhold critical information, but also fails in many cases to enforce regulations that are already on the books. David Lochbaum warns:

"I'm most concerned about the NRC's practice of allowing unsafe reactors to operate. UCS's Nuclear Power Information Tracker shows 47 reactors that NRC knows to violate fire protection regulations and 27 reactors with seismic protection known to be less than the seismic hazards they face. These pre-existing vulnerabilities mean that the American public is protected more by luck than by skill."

And if superstorm Sandy, and the increasing frequency of other extreme weather events in recent years is any evidence, America's luck may be running out.

This article first appeared in the Guardian, UK