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Hurricane Sandy blackouts hit millions. Can power companies cope?

With days of warnings that giant hurricane Sandy would hit the Northeast, power companies positioned supplies and thousands of extra line workers to deal with the onslaught of blackouts.

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On-site inspectors were equipped with satellite phones to remain in steady contact with NRC's Incident Response Center in King of Prussia, Pa. as well as the agency's Operations Center in Rockville, Md.

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"Nuclear power plant procedures require that the facilities be shut down prior to any projected hurricane-force winds on-site," the NRC said in a statement. "The plants’ emergency diesel generators are available if off-site power is lost during the storm. Also, all plants have flood protection above the predicted storm surge, and key components and systems are housed in watertight buildings capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds and flooding."

Plants getting "enhanced oversight" during the storm include: Calvert Cliffs, in Lusby, Md.; Salem and Hope Creek, in Hancocks Bridge, N.J.; Oyster Creek, in Lacey Township, N.J.; Peach Bottom, in Delta, Pa.; Three Mile Island 1, in Middletown, Pa.; Susquehanna, in Salem Township, Pa.; Indian Point, in Buchanan, N.Y.; and Millstone, in Waterford, Conn., the NRC reports.

Nuclear power industry critics, however, said concerns remain despite those steps. The nuclear plant at Oyster Creek, for instance, is offline to unload spent fuel from its core to the plant's spent-fuel pool, but does not have a backup power system to power the pumps that cool it and so could be vulnerable to an extended outage, says Paul Gunter, director of reactor oversight at Beyond Nuclear, a nuclear power watchdog group.

"I don't wish to paint any worst case scenarios about this storm," he says. "I'm more concerned about the slow regulatory response since Fukushima in requiring that there be power backup systems for these spent fuel pools. Now we're faced with this colossal storm and it does raise concerns."

If US homeowners and other power customers have the feeling that power outages are becoming more prevalent – they're right. Power outages hit many more utility customers more frequently and when they did affected a larger number of customers in 2011 compared with 2010, the DOE reported in a recent review of outages over the past two years.

In 2010, there were 17 disruptions that affected 250,000 or more customers, with the largest outage affecting nearly 1.3 million customers, the DOE reported in a study of outages over the past two years.  By contrast, in 2011, there were 30 disruptions affecting at least 250,000 customers, with five outages affecting more than 1.5 million electricity customers. Twenty-nine of the 30 significant outages in 2011 were caused by weather, and one was manmade, the DOE found.

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