Duke Energy’s Brunswick nuclear plant inaccessible due to flooding, workers stranded

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Duke Energy’s Brunswick nuclear plant, about 30 miles south of Wilmington, has declared a state of emergency as the 1,200-acre complex remains cut off by flood waters and and is inaccessible to outside personnel.

The plant has declared an “unusual event,” the lowest level of nuclear emergency, as required by Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said NRC spokesman Joey Ledford.

The twin-reactor nuclear plant, located 4 miles inland, is stable and poses no threat to public safety, Ledford said. The facility has off-site electricity from the power grid to cool the nuclear reactors and radioactive nuclear waste at the site.

Flood water has not entered the facility and has not exposed critical equipment to risk.

The flooding of roads and downed trees prevented fresh crews from relieving the nearly 300 Duke Energy workers and NRC “storm riders” who have been on site for days. And the blocked roadways would make it impossible to evacuate the 10-mile emergency evacuation zone around the site if a higher level of emergency were declared, Ledford said.

“None of the roads are passable,” Ledford said. “The plant is safe. The reactors are in hot stand-by mode 3 shutdown.”

One of the “storm riders” stuck at Brunwick is Daniel Bacon, whose regular job is senior operations engineer out of the NRC’s regional office in Atlanta. Bacon said he’s been “locked down” at Brunswick since Wednesday, but the local Duke Energy employees who live in the area may have arrived on Thursday or Friday.

Reached by phone Monday, Bacon said the workers are sleeping on cots and using Port-a-Potties because the water is currently shut off and the toilets can’t flush.

Bacon said there is limited access to the plant, and some workers have been able to leave the site and check up on their homes nearby. After the storm passed some drove to a Walmart in Southport to stock up on provisions.

On Monday morning, a shipment of food arrived by helicopter, with another helicopter delivery expected Monday afternoon, Bacon said. Off-duty security workers cooked up a hot breakfast of pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon.

“It’s kind-of like camping,” Bacon said. “Everyone is handling it very well. I haven’t heard any complaining.”

Bacon doesn’t know when the waters will recede to the point that the “unusual event” can be lifted. The extraordinary situation was declared to the NRC on Saturday at 2:49 p.m.

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Duke Energy replacements will be arriving Monday, according to company spokeswoman Mary Kathryn Green, and the staff on site now has ample support.

“Some employees are arriving on the site today via their personal vehicles. Others have left the site to go check on their local homes,” the company said by email. “Our aviation group has also flown additional supplies to the site. We have kitchens and a cafeteria available on-site.”

Charlotte-based Duke shut down the two reactors last week, ahead of the advancing storm when Florence was a Category 4 hurricane. Federal law requires nuclear operators to shut down nuclear reactors when sustained wind speeds are at 74 miles per hour or faster.

Brunswick is equipped with emergency backup diesel generators to operate essential equipment if the facility lost off-site power from the grid. Ledford said that the reactors never lost power and the generators never had to be activated.