As Hurricane Sandy tracked north along the Atlantic Coast prior to landfall, press reports noted that operators of nuclear power plants were watching the storm with concern. The New York Times “Green Blog” was tracking the story on October 28 (“Nuclear Reactors Await Hurricane Sandy,” by Matthew L. Wald). Wrote the Times: “Among the various immobile pieces of infrastructure in the path of the East Coast hurricane are around 20 nuclear reactors, from Calvert Cliffs in southern Maryland to Pilgrim in Plymouth, Mass., and Vermont Yankee, just north of the Massachusetts line in Vernon, Vt. But the industry and regulatory officials say that this is an anticipated challenge.”

A Bloomberg News story in the Newark Star-Ledger on October 26 reported that Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials were monitoring the situation and preparing to send inspectors to any plants likely to see an impact (“Nuclear Regulatory Commission watches reactors in Sandy's path”).

When the storm finally hit, five nuke plants were affected, reported ABC News (“Hurricane Sandy: Problems at Five Nuke Plants, by Mark Schone). Reuters covers the story here: (“Sandy curtails nuclear plants, oldest under alert,” by Scott DiSavino). But issues at the plants were not severe: reported the Huffington Post, “Superstorm Sandy forced three nuclear reactors to close by playing havoc with cooling water and electrical lines, but the nuclear industry took the pounding without suffering a major problem.” (see “Superstorm Sandy Nuclear Power Plants: Indian Point Facility Forced To Shut Down Unit; Oyster Creek Plant Also On Alert,” by Ray Henry.)

Entergy’s Indian Point plant, located on the Hudson River north of New York City, shut down one reactor because of disruptions in the electrical grid. A reactor at the Limerick Generating Station near Philadelphia, run by Exelon Corporation, ramped down to 75% power when Sandy damaged transmission lines throughout the region, reducing the demand for power in the affected areas, the Pottstown (Pennsylvania) Mercury reported (“Power reduction at Limerick nuke plant was due to less demand, not damage from Sandy,” by Evan Brandt).

Sandy’s impact was most strongly felt at Exelon’s Oyster Creek power station in Forked River, N.J., the nation’s oldest currently operating nuclear power station and, at 636 megawatts of capacity, one of its smallest. The plant was already shut down for a scheduled refueling when Sandy struck. but when storm surge flooding rose above 6 feet at the site, alert levels were increased as a precaution. The risk was not to the shut-down plant, but to the water pools used to store spent fuel rods: if outside power were lost, floods might also knock out the diesel backup generators used to power cooling pumps for the spent fuel ponds. If the power loss went on for too long, radioactive fuel could boil the cooling ponds dry, melt, and potentially release dangerous radioactive material into the air and water. However, the plant did not lose power and the generators were not flooded; the surge subsided without any damage or further emergency.

Although no nuclear incidents occurred, Hurricane Sandy did call attention to the risk of a nuclear accident along the coastline. But the big story for nuclear power along the coast — and elsewhere in America — may not be storms or sea levels at all. Instead, it could be an economic and technical challenge to nuclear power: At the same time as aging nuclear plants require increasingly expensive maintenance, alternative sources — in particular, relatively clean-burning natural gas produced by “hydrofracking” in Appalachian states such as Pennsylvania — are becoming cheaper, making it tough for nuclear power stations to turn a profit. An example is found in the 35-year-old power station at Crystal River in south Florida. Reuters had this report back in September (“Nuclear Repairs No Easy Sale as Cheap Gas Hits Utilities,” by Julie Johnsson). “Near-record low prices in the U.S. make new gas-fired generation look more economical than fixing the 35-year-old Crystal River Unit 3 station,” Reuters reports. But the station’s owner, Duke Energy Corp., has to make its best guess about whether the low gas prices are a long-term reality, or just a flash in the pan for the power industry.

Crystal River is emblematic of the big risk that nuclear power holds for utilities. Nuclear stations represent a gigantic power resource. But the cost of constructing and maintaining a plant is similarly enormous — and one nuclear power mishap, like one hurricane, is enough to ruin your whole day. What went wrong at Crystal River? The Tampa Bay Times sums it up (“New hearing on status of Crystal River nuclear plant,” by Ivan Penn): “The Crystal River nuclear plant went offline in fall 2009 for a maintenance and upgrade project to replace old steam generators. During the project, the plant's 42-inch thick concrete containment building cracked. An attempt to repair the problem and bring the plant back online led to more cracks. A key part of the decision about Crystal River's future is whether the insurance company, known as NEIL, will cover any or all of the costs of repairing the plant.”

Repairs at Crystal River — if Duke Power decides to fix it — could raise the cost of nuclear power across the nation, the Tampa Bay Times reports (“Utilities nationwide could share the financial pain of the idled Crystal River nuclear plant,” by Ivan Penn). “The crippled Crystal River nuclear plant is now America's headache,” the paper says. “The bill to fix it and pay for replacement power may top $5 billion. The problem? The company that insures all 104 U.S. nuclear power plants has just $3.6 billion on hand to pay for claims. Broken nuclear plants in California, Texas and Michigan will vie for some of that money. But Crystal River alone represents such a financial threat that the insurance company, Nuclear Electric Insurance Ltd., may demand that its member utilities pony up more money.”

Eventually, the nation’s currently operating nuclear plants will wear out. Will they be replaced by more nuclear plants, or by natural gas or coal-fired plants? Environmental and safety issues play a role in that question. But ultimately, economics could be the deciding factor.