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Officials keep close eye on nuclear power plants as Sandy's winds whip

Though no nuclear power plants have been taken offline so far, officials along the east coast are overseeing plants carefully as hurricane Sandy makes landfall in New Jersey. 

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"Our top concern is ensuring that the plants are in a safe condition, that they are following their severe weather procedures" said Diane Screnci of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She said that even though the agency's headquarters and regional office had been closed, its incident response center was staffed, with other regions ready to lend a hand if necessary.

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At the Millstone nuclear power complex on Connecticut's shoreline, officials said they were powering down one of the two reactors to 75 percent of maximum output to maintain stability of the electric grid. Millstone spokesman Ken Holt said the grid's stability could be affected if the unit was operating at 100 percent and suddenly went offline, which isn't expected to happen.

Some 60 million people in 13 states plus the District of Columbia get their power from PJM, the largest regional power grid in the US Contingency plans call for power to be brought in from other areas to replace power lost if a nuclear plant reduces output or goes offline.

"It's done instantaneously," said Paula DuPont-Kidd, a spokeswoman for the grid. "Even if multiple plants go offline at the same time, we'd have to see how adjustments would be made, but for the most part we plan for that scenario."

In August 2011, multiple nuclear plants shut down due to Hurricane Irene, with others reducing power.

Although nuclear plants are built for resilience, their operations get more complicated when only emergency personnel are on duty or if external electricity gets knocked out, as often happens during hurricanes.

"When external power is not available, you have to use standby generators," said Sudarshan Loyalka, who teaches nuclear engineering at University of Missouri. "You just don't want to rely on backup power."

Reach Josh Lederman on Twitter at http://twitter.com/joshledermanAP

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